Child Life Specialist Blair Stofel (left) and Child Life Coordinator Jane Love care for hundreds of children at UAB every year, helping reduce the stress experienced by children and families.

Jacob Lamarque has been admitted to UAB Hospital so many times since he was 9 months old that his mother Justine has lost count.

“I just know we’ve been coming back here off and on for 16 years,” Justine says of her family, which lives in Slidell, La.

Jacob has returned frequently since his heart transplant a year ago, with his family by his side. During that time, the “family” has expanded to include UAB employees Jane Love and Blair Stofel.

Love is the coordinator of UAB’s Child Life Program, and Stofel is a child life specialist. For the past 12 months – for every needle stick, surgery, port placement and even his trip to transplant camp – Love and Stofel have been by Jacob’s side.

“When you’re here for a long time you get to know more about the ladies that work in Child Life, and they make you feel real comfortable here,” Jacob says. “The first time I went to transplant camp I actually knew people there like Mrs. Jane and Mrs. Blair. To know someone when you’re going to a new place makes you feel more comfortable.”

The Child Life Program, which cares for hundreds of children at UAB every year, can reduce the stress experienced by children and families and help them cope with potentially traumatic situations.

Child life specialists like Love and Stofel are called to do great tasks. They are essential in implementing foundations for child development at a time when both the child and the parents are most fearful and stressed.

At no time is a hospital stay more taxing than during the holidays. Love and Stofel are acutely aware of that, and they give to the patients from their heart, often at the expense of time away from their family and friends.

“It’s definitely difficult to achieve that balance between working and taking time off,” Stofel says. Love and Stofel don’t want the children in the hospital or their families to think they are being forgotten — especially during this time of year.

“Thanksgiving and Christmas are such family-oriented holidays and to have a sick child and have to be in the hospital, it’s sad,” Love says. “We have to do our best to normalize the hospital visit and help them work through the stress of being here.”

Celebrating holidays

Child Life recently hosted its 17th annual Thanksgiving lunch for families in the hospital. The lunch is a joint effort of the adult and pediatric units on the fifth floor of the Spain-Wallace Building and the staff of the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit where Child Life patients are admitted after surgery. The staff brought homemade casseroles and desserts and enjoyed turkey and dressing with patients and their families.

“The parents really appreciate it because they’re here away from family and it’s an unexpected treat,” says Stofel. “They’re always excited to have some resemblance of a normal Thanksgiving. If they can’t be at home, it’s the next best thing.”

Child Life’s big holiday event is taking place Dec. 13 with the annual Christmas Toy Fund celebration. This is the 26th year for the event supported by UAB Hospital Maintenance. More than $15,000 was raised by Hospital Maintenance for this past year’s event through donations from employees, vendors, contractors and friends of the department.

Child Life is able to provide all of the children and their families in UAB Hospital with a positive and uplifting experience during the Christmas season and throughout the year because of the work of Hospital Maintenance and the donations received.

“I’ve been here almost 22 years and I can remember when the department came up at Christmas and there were five or six maintenance men who would bring the toys in their arms and put them under the Christmas tree,” Love says. “That was in the early years when their program was just getting off the ground. Through the years it’s grown from $200-$300 worth of toys to $14,000-15,000.

“What the maintenance department does for us this one time of year lasts all year long,” Love says. “We couldn’t do the kind of things we do and give the kind of care we give the children without their help.”

Taking care of families

Most of the patients Love and Stofel see are here because of congenital heart defects. Children also are here waiting for heart, liver and kidney transplants. They have a couple of rooms dedicated to children; one is a playroom full of toys and books. The other is a room where the children go to get any needle stick. It’s an inviting room, complete with a turtle examination table and animals painted on the wall. It provides the children an escape and helps ease their anxiety.

“We use this room for the kids so they don’t have to have potentially painful or scary things like blood drawn in their regular room,” Stofel says. “Having this room enables our nurses to develop a strong relationship with the child because the children know when the nurses come in their room they don’t have to worry about getting a shot or being stuck with a needle.”

The nature of the diseases these children are battling leads to some tough and sometimes scary moments for patients and their families.

Child life specialists take time with the patient and their family members to explain upcoming procedures. There are dolls on the floor that Stofel can use to show patients the procedure they will undergo. If a patient is too young to understand the procedure, Stofel will explain it to a parent or concerned older sibling, giving them an idea of what to expect before and after any procedure. Providing families a caring touch is Child Life’s specialty.

“We just don’t take care of the child,” Love says. “It’s family-centered care. Child Life and the nurses on this floor – we really try to take care of our families.” The Lamarque family says the staff does an excellent job.

“There always are activities for the kids,” Justine Lamarque says. “They are coming up with games or having volunteers come and ask if Jacob wants to play cards. And it’s not always easy being in here, but we have people here we can come and hug. We’ve had plenty of tears shed here, too, but they’ve always been there for us.”

If you would like to make a donation to Child Life’s Guardian Angel Fund, make checks payable to UAB Hospital, care of The Guardian Angel Fund. Mail checks to the Child Life Department, 619 19th Street South, Birmingham AL 35294.