Fifteen years ago today I started my dream job. Landing that job as a child life specialist in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) was not an easy feat. It took me two full years after I graduated from college to get an internship. And then eighteen more months to take my certification test and pass it. Once I was fully eligible to be a child life specialist, it took me seven more months to find a job. It was a tedious process to say the least! But…four years and thirty-eight days after walking across the stage, I started my dream job!

Preemie Foot.jpg
Photodisc—Getty Images

Looking back, I can see how green I was on that first day. Sure, I had already worked in several other jobs since graduating and I had matured some as a young professional…but I walked into this job ready to conquer the world and completely unaware of who I was up against.

You see, my job, as a member of the medical team in the NICU, was to advocate for family centered care and developmental support. Seems like a fantastic benefit, one that many hospitals touted as a favor to the patients and families they serve. However, when you add the human side to the sciency world of medicine, you can come up against some big barriers. Which is why there is a whole profession dedicated to promoting psychosocial care.

Doesn’t sound like it should be that challenging, championing opportunities for children in the hospital to continue developing and playing and for families to communicate their wealth of knowledge about their own children. However, in doing so, it requires the medical world to slow down. It means timing procedures around nap time. It means orchestrating a team of professionals to get a baby out of bed for a parent to hold. It means letting the child choose to watch during a blood draw even if they cry while doing so. It means trusting a parent when they say, “my child’s heart rate drops aren’t because he has a heart problem, it’s because he’s pooping. And I know this because I sit here by his bedside all day long.” (true story).

I knew, before heading into this job, that there would be uphill battles. I had read about the challenges our profession had faced during the campaign to become part of the medical world. And I saw, firsthand, my internship supervisors throw down with team members to promote the very best, well-rounded care for patients.

When I walked into the NICU on June 23, 2003, the air of skepticism was thick. I was following a string of short-lived child life specialists who decided that unit wasn’t their gig. Maybe it was the population? Maybe it was the team? It’s hard to say what made them stay for only a short time in that NICU, but their brevity put me in a tough spot. Not only did I have to convince the team that child life services were essential in NICU care, but I also had to prove that I was worthy of the calling.

Immediately, processes had to be adjusted. Expectations reset. And relationships fostered, not only with the staff but the families also. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really responded well to someone new on my turf telling me what to do. And I wasn’t really polished enough at the tender age of twenty-six to communicate confidently what and why something needed to happen. Needless to say, there were a lot of ruffled feathers in the beginning.

But over time, I found my groove. I figured out what I was good at and the staff learned how to use me best. Seamless would not be a word that I would use to define my years in the NICU. “Challenging and rewarding” is typically what I say when people ask me about that job.

When I look back at those years, there were many defining moments for me as a young professional that left me encouraged and reassured that I had pursued the right field.

Moments like…

  • When a nurse, who had given me a lot of angst, called from her next job to tell me how much she appreciated all I did.
  • When a doctor recognized how swaddling a baby and offering a pacifier during a blood draw could help her stay calm.
  • When another doctor actually read my chart notes, trusted my assessment and ordered occupational therapy for the patient.
  • When the team listened to my research and agreed to change the visitation policy for families.
  • When I was the first person called to offer support for families when a baby died.
  • When siblings I had prepared could walk up to a bedside in a critical care unit and explain all the things they saw.

I’m certain that I would approach that job differently now. Maturity, other professional experiences and motherhood would make me a very different child life specialist today. Some days I think about going back…but most days, I’m just fine “child life-ing” my own kid. Heaven knows he needs a little decreased stimulation and firm touch to bring him down a notch.

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