At last year’s annual Halloween Party, the Berrie Center’s new Child Life Specialist, Kelli Ferguson came dressed as Joy from the Pixar film, Inside Out. It was the perfect character for Kelli, who, on Halloween day and all the others, tries to bring comfort and joy to young diabetes patients at the Berrie Center.
While it’s rare to have a Certified Child Life Specialist in an outpatient setting (they commonly work in hospitals with chronically ill kids to try to “normalize” their experience) having one on the pediatric team at the Berrie Center is part of what makes the treatment here unique for the toddler to teenage patient population.
“Diabetes changes during each stage of a child’s development,” said Kelli, 27, who came to the Berrie Center in April of 2015. “My job is to help kids understand their diabetes in a developmentally appropriate way. That includes teaching even the 5-year-olds, how to find their own voice so they can advocate for themselves and ultimately manage their own diabetes.”
Since each patient is a different age and at various developmental and disease stages, no two sessions at the Berrie Center are ever the same for Kelli Ferguson. It is the job of a child life specialist to work with a patient on both the procedural aspects of their chronic illness as well as the psychological and social. Kelli’s “play dates” with her littlest patients might be spent explaining insulin in an understandable way, or teaching about giving injections and changing pump site locations through medical play. Her sessions with 11-year-olds or 18-year-olds might have more to do with coping with diabetes in middle school or high school.
“As a Child Life Specialist I try to help them conquer the small stuff and cope with everything else, so that eventually they can feel confident and empowered to live successfully and independently with their chronic illness.” said Kelli. “A good experience with a child life specialist can really have a profound impact on the rest of your life.”
She knows that from personal experience. Kelli met her first child life specialist when her own life as a teenager in Palo Alto, Ca. was interrupted by chronic illness that required many surgeries and stays in the hospital. “I felt I was very much in an adult world, and very much a teenager,” she said. “To have someone explain things to me in ways I understood helped me become my own advocate. She meant a lot to me.”
When Kelli was ready for college, she chose Auburn University in Alabama because it had a Child Life Program—a specialty that didn’t exist 20 years ago. She received a Bachelors degree in Human Development and Family Studies and became a Certified Child Life Specialist in 2010. She spent the last five years of years at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston working in both the Emergency Center and Cancer and Hematology Center.
Already in her short burgeoning career Kelli has had amazing opportunities and experiences. She is a volunteer with Operation Smile and has been to India and China helping children with cleft lips and cleft palates prepare for surgery. She has done research with leukemia patients in hospice.
“I love what I do, which is provide child life services to kids who need it,” said Kelli, who has been described as a natural nurturer and calming influence. “I’m impressed with every single patient I have and every day I spend at the Berrie Center.
Services provided by Child Life Specialists are not reimbursed by health insurance and must be funded by philanthropy or other means. A generous gift from the Berkley Family that established the William R. Berkeley III Child Life Program at the Berrie Center made Kelli’s position possible.