When Tina Shek’s son, Zen, needed stitches last October, Shek was more concerned about the hospital experience than the stitches themselves. Zen, five, is on the autism spectrum.
“This was my first experience going to the ER with him and I was dreading it,” said Shek, a resident of Dix Hills and president of Building Blocks Developmental Preschool in Commack. “Anyone who has a child with special needs knows going into the hospital environment can be traumatic.”
At first, her instincts were correct. Zen had a hard time coping when he arrived at NYU Winthrop Hospital to receive care. But she was pleasantly surprised when a child life specialist intervened and told her about the hospital’s STAR Program, which provides enhanced, coordinated care for children with special needs.
“I had no idea there was even a program like this in existence,” said Shek. “I was so excited to learn something like this was in place.”
The program addresses the unique emotional and developmental needs of children and their families throughout a hospital visit, alleviating stress and providing tools to help get through the experience. NYU Winthrop is the only hospital on Long Island to offer patients and their families such a program.
STAR was started in 2010 by Fredric Daum, MD, chief of pediatric gastroenterology at NYU Winthrop. Dr. Daum is passionate about helping underserved populations, and recognized a need here at NYU Winthrop. “The number of families impacted by special needs is growing every day,” said Dr. Daum. “NYU Winthrop recognized a need to support these individuals in their healthcare journeys, whether in an emergency or as part of their routine care.”
Lori Martin, STAR Program pediatric coordinator, has worked hard to build the program since she took the reins in 2013, speaking to the community and using social media to spread word. Currently, the program has 134 patients enrolled, and continues to grow.
“STAR helps transition the patient into the healthcare environment,” said Martin. “Through a comprehensive assessment, we learn about the patient’s fears and stressors, likes, and dislikes. That information helps us determine what to do and what not to do in the visit. For example, if we know taking their blood pressure makes a child anxious, we will do that last.”
The program pairs the child and parent with a child life team member. Child life members are specially trained in child behavior and development and the care of children with complex medical and behavioral issues. The child life specialist can help the child overcome fear and anxiety; alleviate the long- and short-term emotional effects of hospitalization; transform hospitalization from a potentially frightening experience into a positive one that promotes the child’s growth and development; provide the family with emotional support as well as answers to questions, serving as a link between the hospital and home; improve the understanding of medical procedures through education and play; and provide the child with sense of control over a seemingly uncontrollable situation.
“It has been amazing to see the impact the program has had on the families we work with,” said Nicole Almeida, MS, CCLS, director of the Child Life Program at NYU Winthrop. “The parents have raved about the ease of using the program and how it has truly enabled them to focus on what the doctor is saying, while knowing that their child is comfortable. The Child Life Program has worked hard to form a trust and bond with these families to make their hospital experience as positive as possible.”
Shek said the child life specialist she worked with “bent over backwards to make it a better experience.”
“What I really appreciated is that they didn’t dismiss me,” said Shek. “It was nice to have someone who was listening during the whole process. They took the time to hear me and understand.”
Once enrolled in the program, a parent or family member can call two or three days in advance for a scheduled appointment or procedure, or immediately prior to coming to the ER for an emergency situation.
“It’s an amazing program,” said Shek. “I feel a lot of relief that I can call ahead and let them know we’re coming. This program helps to streamline the process.”
“What’s so unique about our program is that we make patients and their families feel like they are home,” said Martin.