By Anita Creamer and Liz Madison, Vitals contributors
It was just a hug.
When 4-year-old Graison Corbell went to Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento recently for surgery, he was anxious.
A certified Child Life Specialist, Sarah McMurray, greeted Graison and his mother, Traci, and sat with them in the pre-operative area. She brought toys and books for Graison to play with, and she answered his questions and got to know him.
She showed him an oxygen mask like the one he’d be wearing when he received anesthesia, and they blew bubbles through it so he wouldn’t be frightened of the mask.
“He could see the other kids going to the operating room,” McMurray said. “He was getting anxious and more reliant on his mom’s comfort.”
As more time passed, McMurray asked herself, “How am I going to get this sweet young man out of his mom’s arms and into the operating room?’”
This is just one of the remarkable abilities of a child life specialist. They are clinically trained pediatric health care professionals who work with children and families in various health care settings. They help them navigate through the challenges of chronic illness, injury and/or disability that often come with hospitalization. Through their specialized training, they use therapeutic play and age-appropriate interactions to lessen anxiety and discomfort. And on this day, McMurray’s specific charge was to make Graison’s transfer into the surgical suite proceed as calmly and easily as possible.
“They let me carry him down the hall toward the operating room,” Traci said. “He was crying. I was crying. He was hugging me.”
And then McMurray asked Graison for a hug.
“His mom was encouraging him in all the best ways,” said McMurray. “It melted my heart. I wanted to be an extension of his amazing mother, so I told Graison I needed a hug, too.
“The next thing I know, he’s in my arms hugging me so tight. His mom kissed him and encouraged him before going to the waiting room. Then the nurse and I entered the operating room. I reassured Graison as I carried him, thanking him for his trust and bravery.”
Learn more about other health benefits from hugs
Graison didn’t let go, so McMurray gently placed him on the operating table and kept hugging him.
“He knew he needed to breathe through the mask,” she said, “so he hugged me as he went to sleep.”
Says Traci, “He fell asleep with her holding him, and then she came and talked to me in the waiting room. I was crying, and she hugged and comforted me. Knowing there was someone to hold my baby is unbelievable.”
Graison is home now and recovering well, much to the relief of his family. His surgery is never far from Traci’s mind, however, and her gratitude continues to grow for the people who showed her kindness and support that day.
“It was a stressful, upsetting time for my son,” she said. “But the Child Life Program team cares about you. They show you compassion and love, and they do an amazing job.”
It was only a hug. But it was everything.