Taking the Scary out of Surgery

For a 3-year-old child, or even a 15-year-old child, surgery can be scary. The child is in an unfamiliar environment, surrounded by bright lights, people dressed in funny garb, and some impressive looking machinery which beeps and whirs. And that is before being subjected to the needles, masks and the general invasive poking and prodding that is necessitated by surgery.

Taking the scary out of surgery is just what child life specialist Caitlin Bennett and Ambulatory Surgery patient care technician Rysa Stone do every single day.

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As part of the Ambulatory Surgery Center, Caitlin, Rysa and their colleagues continually strive to reduce the scary and the stress of surgery for children (and for adults, too) by finding tools to make surgery less impersonal and by empowering children to feel more in control of the situation. The atmosphere in surgery has shifted substantially from being very clinical and process-driven to being patient- and family-centered. Caitlin teaches the staff about age-appropriate language to describe procedures. Language is extremely important when talking to children about hospital experiences. “Simple changes, such as we don’t take their temperature or blood pressure, we check it,” Rysa explains, “make a big difference to reducing fear.” After all, who wants to hear that they’re going to be ‘knocked out’ if they take a medicine?

The latest addition to the Ambulatory Surgery Center’s toolbox is the surgery buddy. These small fabric dolls, made by volunteers including local Girl Scout troops, are a teaching tool and comfort for the child. Caitlin explains that a child can color directly onto the soft doll, name it, play doctor and role play with it, swab down the surgery area, put an ‘IV’ in and take it out, all while ASC staff members explain and perform procedures. The child life specialists also use teaching dolls and teddy bears to show in detail the procedure that the child is going to experience. But these larger dolls and teddy bears can not be taken into surgery, or snuggled with, or taken home. Rysa shares that part of the power of the surgery buddy is that the child gets to keep it. “They have an amazing attachment to the dolls.” Being able to touch, to manipulate, to learn kinesthetically while mastering procedures reduces fear. Caitlin and Rysa share the recent story of a young patient who was petrified prior to getting a surgery buddy. But then, the time spent drawing, coloring and talking about the procedures with her new surgery buddy “turned her fear into pride” as evidenced by this photo just before going into surgery: