Meet the play specialists at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge
All done,” five-year-old Jasper Mosedale proudly announces as Charlie the teddy bear has a bandage secured on his paw.
“Do you think Charlie is being brave?” asks health play specialist Vicki Brown. “Charlie is brave,” declares Jasper.
Vicki continues: “You’re doing a good job, well done. Charlie is happy. He says thank you very much.” Jasper beams: “I want to do it again!”
Vicki is part of a team of 23 health play specialists and nursery nurses working across 11 areas, including the children’s wards and the emergency department at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust.
The team plays a vital role in supporting the hospital’s young patients throughout their stay, ensuring that stress and anxiety are kept to a minimum.
They organise daily play and art activities, use play to maintain a child’s level of development during illness, help children deal with their feelings, use play to prepare children for hospital procedures, encourage peer group friendships and even organise parties and special events.
Speaking to the Cambridge Independent, therapeutic play manager Stephanie Fairbain, who has worked at Addenbrooke’s for 10 years, explained: “When we say therapeutic play, we’re talking about working with children to help them to cope with their hospital experiences.
“The main aim is to reduce stress and anxiety and to reduce the long-term effects of trauma relating to hospital experiences.”
Children can suffer long-term problems resulting from a hospital experience, particularly if they have come through the emergency department. The team supports those children and their families through normalising play and therapeutic play.
“We have children who can be here for months, and if you can imagine that they’re not taking part in their daily activities, that can be a real chunk out of their developmental opportunities – they’re not mixing with other children in the same way, they’re not going to nursery, they’re not out and about. The play team – play specialists and nursery nurses – will get involved,” said Stephanie.
“From a developmental point of view, we can have children not meeting their milestones. That can be physical and cognitive, emotional and how they react with other children – that can take a long time to catch up on. But it depends on how long a child is in for.”
In the play room on the hospital’s children’s ward, nursery nurse Emma Meade is doing some painting with 14-year-old Elizabeth Fyfe, who has been in hospital for three months after a serious bout of influenza left her in intensive care.
The teenager has undergone a tractotomy to help her breathe and is missing her school and friends. With Emma, Elizabeth can enjoy being creative and escape the medical world of the ward.
Her mother, Cheryl Fyfe, 42, from Norfolk, said: “She does a lot of colouring, art and craft stuff... she likes using her hands. She’s very creative and she also likes going out into the garden. The messier she is, the happier she is.”
The play room is packed full of games, puzzles, arts and crafts, and plenty of toys.
Emma, who has been in her role for 11 years, explained: “Sometimes it might take them a while to get in the play room because they’re a bit reluctant or scared, but as soon as you bring them into that environment, which is bright and colourful, and you start showing them the activities you’ve got, then you start to build a relationship with them. They grow to trust you and to bond with you.”
On the same ward is Jasper, who has been in hospital for eight days with a blood infection.
His mum Helen, 34, from Cambourne, said: “It’s amazing as Jasper’s quite a lively boy and because he’s now starting to feel better he wants things to do.
“When he had to have an MRI, they brought a Lego model of an MRI scanner in to play with and then, on a DVD, the sounds of the MRI to get him used to it so he knew what would be happening.”
Stephanie added: “We adapt to children’s needs. You have to think on your feet and you have to be creative. I’ve put cannulas in fire engines, because children don’t always play with teddies. It’s about finding ways to engage that child.”
Although not medically-trained, health play specialists must complete a foundation degree, hold a professional childcare qualification at level 3 or above and must have completed two years’ post-qualifying work experience in a childcare setting. Nursery nurses have qualifications in childcare or early years.
Children who are preparing for a major operation, or who have a particular fear or anxiety, are also referred to the team.
“You can have some children who won’t be in the same room as a needle or won’t come into the hospital,” Stephanie said.
“The first steps might just be getting them into hospital or onto the concourse. And then coming onto a ward and then maybe having a look at a cannula at a distance not with a needle in. And then gradually touching it.
“It can be a six-month piece of work to build up that child’s confidence to handle a needle. It’s about desensitising to the object and understanding it, and then looking at what coping mechanism we can put in place to cope with the procedure.
“It’s their body, the procedure is happening to them – how would they like it to be done?” she added.
The team also supports breastfeeding mothers, takes responsibility for ordering food for those with special dietary needs and supports children who are starting to eat again after surgery.
They work with children from as young as three days old to 16-year-old teenagers, who mostly ask to play on a computer or games console.