While doctors and nurses care for the medical needs of patients at Mesa's Cardon Children's Medical Center, a special group tries to help the kids be kids, even in the hospital.

Child life specialists take play and turn it into teachable moments, helping young patients learn about their upcoming procedures, easing jitters and making them feel at "home" during their stays, whether one day or one month or longer.

"This is a scary place to be as a child. You don't know what's going on. You don't know what's going to happen," said Cardon child life specialist Stephanie Offill.

While in college, Offill took a volunteer position at Seattle Children's Hospital. As she got closer to graduation, she sat down with a child life specialist, asking lots of questions about the job.

She found her calling.

After graduating with a degree in sociology, and an internship at the hospital, Offill landed a job in San Diego as a child life specialist for a Ronald McDonald House. Three years ago, she came to work at Cardon.

Offill said she once heard the job of a child life specialist described as a "camp counselor."

But that's not always easy to explain to parents.

"Usually when we go into a room we have to say our name, our title and then explain our jobs," she said.

Most days, Offill can be found going room to room at the hospital with stops at a floor's playroom. She may walk with a child to a procedure, or give a "comfort" hug when medicine is administered or just encourage older patients to get out of bed.

"All the things they don't want to do when they're here," she said.

Part of Offill's job includes instruction: teaching patients about their diagnosis or going into a child's class to explain a diagnosis such as diabetes or cancer.

"That's good for the class, to explain, ‘This is why Jimmy was gone for so long and this is why his life is different, but we treat him the same,'" she said.

Child life specialists do not perform medical procedures, but teach children about the procedures using "medical dolls," cloth dolls made by volunteers at Tempe's Friendship Village. Offill may demonstrate the procedure on the doll, then the children can "give" their dolls an I.V. (using plastic tubing) or put a mask on them.

"They get to do the medical procedure themselves," she said.

Certified child life specialists must have a bachelor's degree in a field such as social work, sociology, psychology or child development. But most of their training is on-the-job, including the internship, classes through the national Child Life Council and yearly conferences.

The field is licensed, with applicants required to pass an exam and stay current with classes, Offill said.

Child life specialists may specialize in a field, such as surgery, intensive care, neonatal intensive care or oncology. They serve the patients, but they may also be a shoulder to cry on for a family or siblings when a patient dies.

Part of it, Offill said, is helping the patients realize they do have some choices.

"They lose a lot of that in the hospital," she said. "When a child doesn't have control, they choose to not eat or not take medicine or not get out of bed. When you let them make choices they start taking their medicine because they have some control in their day."

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