A smile can tell worlds about a person’s state of mind. Smiles communicate joy, hope and general well-being. In one sense, the job of a Gilchrist child life specialist is to elicit those smiles. A smile can convey not only happiness and comfort, but also a reprieve from sadness, distress or even pain. And since smiling can be contagious, one person’s smile can make even a stranger feel happy.
Recently, I visited a 5-year-old Gilchrist Kids patient with a muscular disease. Bit by bit, his body is failing to respond to his commands, his powers of verbal communication falling by the wayside. Yet, this child has the biggest smile.
As his disease progresses, the smiles are harder to come by, both because of the lack of facial muscle control and his pain and fatigue. But if I can make him smile, I’ve succeeded in making him happy, as well as anyone else who sees those pearly whites.
During my visit, this little boy was experiencing abdominal pain from severe constipation, so I distracted him with silly conversation and a video. Knowing he loved music, I slowly introduced different songs with strong beats that made him more alert. As he became more interested, he seemed distracted from his pain.
He moved his head to the beat, and I tapped his knees to the rhythm. When Queen’s “We Will Rock You” played, I “danced” his feet to the beat, bringing his legs up to his abdomen on every clap. He began laughing, having totally forgotten his pain, especially after the abdominal crunch movements resulted in a large, giggle-inducing bodily noise as the pent-up gas passed. His smile lit up the room.
Smiles are a window into a person’s well-being. It may not be a magic wand, but when we work hard to make those smiles happen, it brings joy to the child, to the family, and to us. That child feels valued, loved and safe, and their smile makes everyone around them feel their joy.
I don’t walk around with medications, thermometers or any medical instruments. Nevertheless, through my work as a child life specialist, I can bring respite from pain and help a child just be a child—all by helping them smile.
To learn more about Gilchrist Kids and the role of a child life specialist, visit www.gilchristcares.org/gilchrist-kids.