Play specialists who make hospital stays a little more fun

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On the children’s ward at Kettering General Hospital, there is a special team of staff whose job it is to look after the young patients.

They don’t apply bandages or give out medication, but their role is just as important as the doctors and nurses.

The play specialists work to make the hospital as child-friendly as possible, from explaining an operation a child is about to have to the family, to distracting a youngster with toys during a painful procedure.

Kettering General Hospital introduced its first qualified play specialist in 1991 and there is now a team of seven, including team leader and play co-ordinator Trisha Brigden.

There are play specialists based on Dolphin children’s ward, the children’s surgical ward Timpson and in the paediatric out-patients department, but staff will also spend time in the paediatric assessment unit – the first place young patients will be seen when they come into hospital.

There will usually be a play specialist on the wards from 7am until 6pm, seven days a week, either in the ward play room or by children’s bedsides.

Trisha said: “If you work in a school or a nursery you build up a relationship with a child over time.

“But here it is about developing that relationship really quickly and helping that child and family as much as you can in a short space of time.

“Some days are tougher than others but, unlike in more specialist hospitals, here we are very lucky in that most children who come in we can make better and send them home.

“I love coming here every day.”

The benefit of play specialists is they are not involved in any treatment a child is receiving and are a friendly face who can often explain things in a way that’s much easier for the child to understand.

Trisha said: “We make sure children know what’s going on and why. For example, you are 12 and you are admitted with tummy ache. The doctor says it’s appendicitis and you are going to have your appendix taken out.

“A play specialist will then explain everything in a language that’s suitable for their stage of development.

“We do that by talking to them and showing them pictures from books that we have made ourselves.

“Some children are quite interested and keen to learn and will ask lots of questions, and some can be worried about certain things.

“The older they are the more worries they tend to have and a teenager will be more aware of their own mortality.

“We explain it is quite rare that anything goes wrong.

“Other children might worry about getting pricked with a needle but we will explain that they won’t feel the needle.

“A lot of children find the thing they are worrying about is not as bad as the worrying they do.

“We will also distract them while procedures are being done like blood tests, drains being removed and stitches put in.

“I would chat to someone but others might use finger puppets or books, depending on the age of the child.”

The work of a play specialist also involves supporting the child’s parents as well as any brothers or sisters.

Trisha said: “The family might not always take in all of what the doctor tells them.

“Nurses would also explain it to them but we use even simpler language and we are always there sitting in the play room if they want to talk.”

The play team also visits schools to talk to children about hospitals and what might happen if you ever have to go to hospital.

The hospital’s Little Extras appeal, backed by the Evening Telegraph, aims to support the work of the play specialists by raising £80,000 to buy new toys and games for the new paediatric ward, which is due to open this summer.

In the new ward there will be much more space for play, both in the designated play room and in the single rooms and bays.

This means there will be space for bigger toys and games, including a Space Invaders game and a jukebox, which will go into the new dedicated adolescent room, and a giant dolls house, which several children can play with at once.

Staff also hope to buy more toys for boys and to have a small play area created in every room and cubicle.