Two-year-old Aliyah Islava was fighting what her family thought was a mild stomach virus. When the symptoms did not improve, mom Rosemary took her, at the recommendation of her pediatrician, to the emergency department. Within 24 hours, Aliyah was undergoing brain surgery at CHOC Hospital.
The diagnosis of stage 4 medulloblastoma, a fast-growing, aggressive brain tumor, shocked Rosemary and her husband Hector and propelled the entire family, including Aliya’s siblings Branden, 10, and Miranda, 5, on a life-changing journey. The family had the support of the entire CHOC care team, which to their surprise included the Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department.
Trained professionals with degrees in child life, child development, human development or recreation therapy, CHOC’s child life specialists strive to normalize the hospital environment for patients and their families. They help make things like medical equipment and procedures feel less strange so that patients and their families feel more at ease in the hospital.
Rosemary recalls with fondness the first time she met Ashley, an oncology child life specialist, shortly after Aliyah was admitted.
“Everything was happening so fast. We were in shock and terrified. Ashley helped explain everything and calmed our fears. She also explained to our other two children what was happening, so we could focus on Aliyah,” says Rosemary.
Aliyah spent almost seven months in the hospital. Child life specialists used distraction techniques and medical play to help her every step of the way. They also helped Branden and Miranda by continuing to explain what was going on with their little sister and giving them opportunities for play.
“Child life helped normalize the entire experience for Aliyah, Branden and Miranda, and made sure they didn’t miss out on just being kids. Even more amazing, they were never afraid, not even Aliyah,” says Rosemary.
A big part of childhood is birthday parties. Aliyah was very ill in the oncology intensive care unit when she was about to turn 3. Rosemary wasn’t sure her daughter would be permitted out of the unit. But as soon as Aliyah got clearance from the doctors for a short visit to the playroom, child life organized an impromptu birthday celebration.
“I will never forget the party that child life planned. In a short amount of time, they managed to make a poster, collect presents and sing to her,” remembers Rosemary.
Following Aliyah’s last chemotherapy treatment, more than a year after her diagnosis, child life specialists sang once again; this time, “Happy Last Chemo.” They continue to support Aliyah today as she faces additional health challenges. Most recently, a child life specialist accompanied Aliyah into the operating room. Aliyah didn’t even need medication to keep her calm. She was comforted knowing child life was by her side, says Rosemary.
“Their patience, their understanding, their compassion…these are just some of the things that make child life specialists so unique,” she explains. “They bring you hope and step in when we as parents are overcome by worry and fear. I am very thankful for having them as part of our journey.”
CHOC Hospital was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the cancer specialty.