PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Balian Funderburk is only 6 years old and he’s already undergone four spine surgeries and two brain surgeries. He has spina bifida and hydrocephalus and has been in and out of hospitals for most of his life. For him, visits to the hospital can be traumatizing, but a child life specialist at Oregon Health & Science University is making it easier.
Balian’s mother, Hannah Funderburk, remembers the moment they met certified child life specialist Jess Calvert. It was a day that would change the family’s life forever.
“It was magical. She came in and she read the room. She read me, she read [Balian], because that’s what child life therapy does, and she said, ‘Hey, I’m not a doctor. I’m not a nurse. I’m a teacher, and I’m here to play with you,’” Hannah said.
Calvert has been a certified child life specialist at OHSU’s Doernbecher’s Children’s Hospital for seven years. She supports the psychosocial needs of pediatric patients and their families and she does that through play, by spending time with them and by communicating openly.
Child life specialists understand that children use play to communicate and manage their stress.
By playing with children, child life specialists help them understand what’s happening to them medically and help them process it.
“Play is the ultimate equalizer. So, play allows for a child to have control, to have autonomy, to play through an event that is stressful,” Calvert explained.
Calvert specializes in sedation and surgery and playing with patients helps her know what they need before a procedure. Sometimes they need extra sedation medication, or for Calvert to be with them in the operating room when they’re sedated, or to interact with the anesthesia mask to make it less scary.
That’s something she did with Balian to help him feel more comfortable. Together, they put stickers on his anesthesia mask, chose an anesthetic flavor and put a mask on his stuffed animal – all to make him feel more comfortable about the surgery he was about to have.
Before surgery in May 2022, Calvert asked Balian what he wanted her to do when they went into the operating room together. He said he didn’t want to see the medical team put vital monitoring stickers on his body. She said “done” and ensured no one touched him until he fell asleep after putting the mask on.
Seeing Calvert advocate for Balian reminded Hannah that she needs to understand what her son wants and speak up for him.
“She helped us realize that he’s more than his disability. As a parent, when you’re on that journey of parenting a disabled child, it’s so overwhelming. Sometimes you do forget, and she really put in the reminder that he’s a kid,” Hannah said.
She said Calvert feels like a teammate in the hospital and helps the Funderburks lift a very heavy weight.
Although Calvert is a child life specialist and focuses on children, a big part of her job is also to assess parents. She studies how they speak to their children and prepare them for surgery, and if she needs to, she’ll provide some gentle coaching or help them put the child’s experience into perspective.
Sometimes she encounters parents who haven’t told their child that they’re about to undergo surgery. That can be a tricky situation to navigate, but Calvert said she approaches it with empathy and encourages parents to be honest with their kids.
“If you do not tell your child the truth right now, they will not trust you tomorrow. And that’s a terrible way to go home,” Calvert said.
The Funderburks said they moved to Portland in 2021 because they had heard great things about the city’s inclusion and accessibility. Before that, they were living in Georgia and had never encountered a child life specialist in their many trips to the hospital with Balian.
Hannah said meeting Calvert was life-changing for the family, so much so that she wrote Calvert a letter after Balian’s most recent surgeries. The letter thanked Calvert for all she’d done and expressed the impact she made on the family.
“Our work can be dismissed because of its subtlety,” Calvert said. “And so, to have a mom and a child be so attuned to its intentionality and the therapeutic process within that was so validating.”
Hannah believes a child life therapist should be at every hospital. At Doernbecher Children’s Hospital there are 13 working in various departments.
Even with that many at one hospital, Calvert stays busy. She supports about 11 children every day. Sometimes she’s bouncing between a child who’s about to have their tonsils and adenoids removed to a child that’s about to lose a limb because of cancer.
It’s challenging to stay in the moment, especially when she knows there are other children in outpatient surgery she won’t have time to see. Calvert tries to follow advice she received from a mentor.
“Focus on the child in front of you, because that’s all you can do,” she said.
Balian lives with a lifelong birth defect and Hannah expects he’ll have more surgeries in the future. One of them could result in him losing his ability to walk. It will always be scary, but the skills Calvert equipped Balian with will follow him through his life.
“They really do bring help in a really helpless moment,” Hannah said. “They’re the superheroes that we all need.”