If you have a child who sees a physician at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, chances are you know Jaclyn Gee, our child life specialist. Although it’s a rarity to have a child life specialist at an outpatient center (usually they work in hospitals to try to “normalize” a child’s experience) Jaclyn plays an essential role in many a child’s life at the Berrie Center—from the first blood sugar test, through transition into adulthood with diabetes.
The Berrie Center is one of only a handful of diabetes centers in the country that offers the services of a child life specialist, whose job it is to help kids navigate through life with a chronic illness. Jaclyn Gee’s position is funded by an annual gift from the Berkley Family through the William R. Berkeley III Child Life Program. The program has a profound impact on the children of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center for the rest of their lives.
"Insurance companies do not pay for the services provided by our Child Life Specialist. Without the generosity of individuals like the Berkley Family, this wonderful program would not exist."Robin Goland, MD
Co-Director, Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center
“Normalization is a huge part of what a child life specialist hopes to accomplish, whether in a hospital or in a role like mine, where I’m trying to normalize diabetes into every stage of a child’s life, so they can have normal life experiences,” said Jaclyn, who has been at the Berrie Center for four years and holds a Master’s Degree in Child Life from the Bank Street Graduate School of Education. “There’s nothing these kids cannot do, no experience they cannot have, just because they have diabetes.”
Recently, Jaclyn talked about her own life at the Berrie Center and her work with the littlest Berrie Center patients (she sees them as young as 13 months old) and children of all ages and beyond. “There actually isn’t a cutoff point,” she said. “I’ve seen young adults and I’ve seen kids of adult patients if they need it. I am more than happy to see other patients who are struggling with their diabetes through whatever transition they are going through.”
How do you help a toddler normalize diabetes?
If they are 3-years-old, often I give them a chance to participate in something that I call medical play where I use a doll, diabetes supplies and a Fischer Price medical set. This gives them a chance to explore this new equipment in their lives. A toddler will check a doll’s blood sugar over and over again—and that’s very beneficial.
When they’re really young, I mostly work with parents so they can provide structure and set limits that will help their kids at home. I often have a conversation with parents about reasonable choices. For example, rather than ask your child if he wants to check his blood sugar, rephrase the question to ask, ‘right hand or left?’ ‘Kitchen or bathroom?’ Those small yet reasonable choices really do help kids learn how to make the bigger decisions going through life.
How does your work change as kids get older?
I spend a lot of time with the school age kids working on the difference between being secretive and being private. Telling someone you have diabetes is a lot like giving someone your phone number. You’re not going to tell everybody, but I emphasize that it doesn’t have to be a big secret because having diabetes is nothing to be ashamed of.
Something really beneficial for older kids is to have an opportunity to learn what diabetes is. This especially is the case if they were diagnosed at 3 and now they’re 12, and no one stopped to explain diabetes to them, just assuming that they already knew.
In the teenage years, it’s about finding their independence and transitioning from their parents, taking charge of their diabetes care and their healthcare in general. We help them take the steps they need to take to get there.
How do you explain diabetes to a young child?
I introduce the concept of insulin as something that everybody needs to turn food into energy. To the really young, I say it’s like the gas that makes the car go. As they get a little older, they can understand that someone with diabetes doesn’t make their own insulin, so they need to get it from the outside.
It’s a good idea to sit down with children at all ages to see what they understand about how their body works and what happens to their food after they eat it.
I knew that I wanted to work with kids, but wasn’t really sure if I wanted to be a teacher. My mom actually saw something on TV about child life specialists, so I did some research and it was something that interested me. I began volunteering at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital over the summer when I was in college. I met a lot of child life specialists there and fell in love with the job.
How can people find you at the Berrie Center?
I wear blue scrubs everyday. All of the child life specialists at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York Presbyterian wear the same scrubs. That way, when patients go from unit to unit, the families can easily tell who we are. Say a new onset child comes through the emergency department, is admitted to an inpatient unit and then comes to the Berrie Center. They may come in contact with a child life specialist at all three areas.
To make an appointment with the Berrie Center’s Child Life Specialist, contact your Berrie Center endocrinologist.
Click here to support the Berrie Center’s Child Life Specialist Program.