Can role play help a sick child?
How a dad’s creativity has helped his chronically ill daughter.

Illness is a terrible thing for both a child and parent to experience, and sometimes the medical procedures intended to help the condition can also be painful and traumatic.

Paul and Yocheved Bacher experienced this firsthand when their four-month-old daughter Tehilla was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.  

Shortly after, Tehilla contracted a potentially lethal lung infection, requiring aggressive antibiotics for 8 hours a day every 3 months. Given her age and the trauma involved in regular needle insertions into her arm, an access port was put into her chest. One of the more distressing, but necessary, medical procedures was flushing out this port every month.

‘We would go to the hospital and the nurse would insert the needle into her port, whilst at least 3 people held her down to keep her still,’ recalls Paul. ‘Despite the nurse’s loving and caring ways, Tehilla was always hysterical during and after this process.’ In fact, just walking into the hospital was usually enough to set her off.

There must be a better way

Paul became so upset by his daughter’s distress, that he developed a revolutionary approach to the procedure.

Before flushing out 2-year-old Tehilla’s port, he now talks her through the entire procedure, and encourages her to act it out on her doll. Together they clean, nurse, and comfort the little doll, repositioning Tehilla as the nurse, and removing much of the fear and discomfort that comes from being the patient. Being in control helps her to deal with the process in a more dispassionate and mature way.

In a touching Youtube clip which takes the viewer through a live example of this role playing, Paul explains that ‘the more a person understands and connects to a process or idea, the more he is able to deal with it. Anyone who has played sports understands the difference between being in the stands and playing on the field.’

On a role: infinite possibilities

Paul believes this approach has the potential to be an amazing tool for any family with young children who must undergo invasive medical procedures, such as children with cancer, cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, or blood diseases.

But even simpler situations such as routine doctor’s practices can be traumatic for uninitiated children. Letting the young patient first perform these processes on a doll allows the child to understand the procedure, and gives them a sense of empowerment.

Recently, a mother contacted Paul to share that she would try this method on her 3-year-old daughter, who was hard of hearing and became hysterical at monthly ear checkups. Another spoke about using the method to get her daughter to accept nappies. The possibilities are endless.

How this can help YOUR child

• Take a doll along to your doctors’ appointments and, if possible, practice the procedures at home before you go. Buy a set of toy doctor’s implements including a stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, thermometer, syringe, and reflex hammer.

• Another useful resource for preparing children for medical appointments is reading books about the experiences, for example Barney Goes to the Doctor or The Hospital. As children explore and discuss the images they see, they become familiar and perhaps less intimidated by the procedures.

By removing the unnecessary anxiety from medical situations, we can empower our children and assist them in dealing with essential health practices.

Is your child frightened of doctors or medical procedures?

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