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Child’s Play Healing at Texas Center for Proton Therapy

March 22, 2019

Editor’s Note: In recognition of Child Life Month (March), we asked Texas Center for Proton Therapy child life specialist Laura Drap to share perspectives on her role and the healing power of play.

Strangers in lab coats. Large whirring machines. Worried parents. It’s no surprise that medical treatment and procedures, including radiation therapy, can feel overwhelming and even frightening for children, adolescents, and their families. Fear and confusion can leave patients feeling unsure about their illness and can negatively impact their physical and emotional well-being.

Because proton therapy is ultra-precise radiation treatment, it is especially effective on cancers in children, whose organs are still growing and developing. That’s why Texas Center for Proton Therapy’s staff includes me, a certified Child Life Specialist. I work closely with patients and families to help reduce anxiety and minimize any emotional trauma often accompanied with illness and healthcare experiences.

With a background in child development, I am an integral member of the multidisciplinary healthcare team, providing psychosocial care to children and their families. With a family centered care approach, we offer developmentally appropriate explanations and support to help children understand and cope easier with medical interventions.

This is consistent with a key recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Child life services should be delivered as part of an integrated patient- and family-centered model of care and included as a quality indicator in the delivery of services for children and families in health care settings.”

I work closely with each pediatric patient and their family to create a personalized coping plan that helps prepare children for medical encounters and normalizes the experience of daily proton radiation treatments. We use play, medical play, and education sessions, to help each child gain a better understanding of their own treatment plan and feel more in control of their situation. Play in this context is not only the universal child’s language. Here, play also is healing.

Play in this context is not only the universal child’s language. Here, play also is healing.”

This individualized, child-friendly approach helps children feel empowered and master their ability to hold still during the proton radiation treatments, which can reduce the need for anesthesia.

It is my role to help reduce any anxiety and stress a child may be feeling and to be a supportive presence to each child and their family throughout their treatment journey. My goal is to make sure children have a better understanding of the proton radiation treatment process and provide them with the necessary tools and emotional support to cope with their daily treatments.

Caitlynne Truett, 6, finished treatment at Texas Center for Proton Therapy in January for a medulloblastoma. She is pictured with TCPT child life specialist Laura Drap, and her father, Chris Truett, at her finishing ceremony.

We have created many fun traditions to help make coming to the center each day fun and enjoyable. Whether it’s adding a sticker to their attendance chart, visiting the playroom and media lounge, choosing a child friendly printed pillow case or blanket to help with treatment…all of this helps to create an appealing environment for children of all ages. All children look forward to “Fun Friday” where each pediatric patient is awarded an opportunity to choose a toy or special gift from our new treasure chest.

But by far, the most fun tradition the children look forward to is ringing the gong on their last day of treatment and painting their handprint on our High Five Canvas to recognize and celebrate this special milestone in their journey.

Certified child life professional Laura Drap provides child life services to pediatric patients and their families while they are in treatment at Texas Center for Proton Therapy.

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