People often talk about being deeply affected in their adult lives by experiences in their childhood—For example, if you had a bad experience with a dog, you may be afraid of dogs. Or if you had an amazing teacher in third grade, you’ll always remember her and the book she read to you. This same sort of lasting impression is made on kids who are hospitalized for long periods of time. In this respect, the pediatric-patient experience is extremely important since it can affect not only the healing process, but how a person views encounters with health professionals for the rest of his/her adult life.
The hospital is a microcosm—often the only world a child knows if they aren’t able to go home or attend school for long periods of time. A child who is hospitalized will not refer to that time in their life as their "Hospital Experience,” but rather their LIFE experience.
As a childhood cancer survivor, I now find myself reflecting on that time in my life to determine how it has impacted me and shaped me as an adult.
Overall, I believe my experience as a patient was more positive because my parents were actively involved in making sure I could continue to be "me” while in the hospital. I never felt like my identity was "Cancer Patient.”
Part of "me” was drawing and doing art projects. I often shared my artwork with doctors and nurses and involved them in my projects when I could; I asked the nurses and doctors to sign my scrapbooks, take pictures with me, and look at my drawings. I was able to create personal moments with medical staff through my own initiative and these moments helped me to cope much better.
Looking back, I think there were also missed opportunities. If all encounters with medical personnel could have started with a real interest and curiosity about me – Hannah – and not my disease, I wonder how much more positive those daily interactions would have been for all involved. I think I would have been more cooperative in some trying times rather than thinking, "I don’t like this person.” Or even worse: "I’m not going to tell them what hurts.” For children less expressive and/or outgoing than I was, the need for doctors and others to actively pursue genuine non-medical interest seems even more crucial for the best patient experience and outcomes.
Medical professionals who interact with children in the hospital are in many ways substitutes for the other people who are normally in a child’s daily life: teachers, classmates, friends, coaches, etc. As an important person in a child’s life, a doctor/nurse affects how a child views himself. This role is probably not one that a medical professional thinks about – their main job of course is to help a child get well. But when a health professional takes the time to initiate and share a personal moment with a child (discovering a common interest, sharing a joke, drawing together, etc.) there is a tremendous impact not only upon the child’s current health and experience, but upon his/her sense of self and long-term attitudes toward the medical profession.
Because these moments meant so much to me, I strongly encourage medical professionals to consciously create "me moments” with children in the hospital. I believe in doing so, everyone’s experience will be greatly improved and the positive impact will last a lifetime.
Hannah Doty is the founder of V.I.P. Hospital Productions—an organization with a non-profit branch that creates customized entertainment to enhance the experiences of hospitalized kids and promote positive interactions with their medical team.