MINNEAPOLIS -- Caitlin Pichner watched as her 2-year-old son zoomed toy cars on a racetrack, then shot baskets on a plastic hoop, then played with a Mickey Mouse figure, then raced cars some more.
Distractions like that are golden for Damian Bridges when his blood sugar plummets because of hypoglycemia -- days when he otherwise doesn't want to get out of bed, his mother said. "When he has really bad days, this is what he looks forward to," Pichner said.
Helping kids forget their pain -- and that they're in a hospital at all -- is the goal of the Child Life Program at Children's hospitals in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It includes a "zone" room at the St. Paul hospital full of games, books and toys, plus a network of therapists and volunteer playmates at both campuses, on the theory that busy children are happier -- and perhaps healthier, too.
The program has been supporting sick and injured kids for years, but it made headlines last week when it became the unwitting beneficiary of Minnesota Vikings fans who donated money to the charitable foundation of a New Orleans Saints punter.
Research nationally has suggested that child life programs have clinical benefits. In 2016, Florida doctors reported using less anesthesia on children receiving radiation treatments for cancer when they had such support. California researchers reported last year that children with broken bones were calmer and had lower heart rates during casting procedures when child life specialists were on hand.
Often it just helps children relax -- sometimes so they can forget their pain for a while, and sometimes so they can open up and talk about what they are feeling, said Stephanie Smith, a certified child life specialist at Children's.
"Kids become themselves," she said.
The Child Life program isn't directly funded by health insurance, so charitable support keeps it afloat, Smith said. The child life area at Children's was built in 2014 through donations from a charity founded by country music star Garth Brooks. The foundation has supported 11 Child Life Zones in U.S. hospitals.
After the Vikings' playoff victory over New Orleans, fans noticed the sportsmanship of Saints punter Thomas Morstead and launched a social media campaign to donate to his foundation.
As donations raced toward $100,000, Morstead decided to return the kindness by steering the money to Children's and its Child Life program. When donations reached $220,000, the hospital's leaders capped their share and asked that the rest go to similar programs in Louisiana. Another $100,000 has been donated so far.
Yesica Mercado Munoz was volunteering at the Child Life Zone on Monday as Damian played. The 16-year-old Simley High School junior visits weekly, but six years earlier she was a beneficiary when she was hospitalized with Type 1 diabetes.
Mercado Munoz recalled feeling frustrated -- even guilty that she might have caused her disease somehow -- when Smith entered her room.
"She brought in her iPad and we played Angry Birds," she said. "It was really cool back then."
Before long, they were talking freely about her diabetes and Mercado Munoz understood it for the first time.
"Stephanie made me feel like it wasn't my fault," she said.
As a result of the experience, Mercado Munoz said, she wants to go to medical school and become an endocrinologist. But on Monday, the task at hand was to be the audience to all of Damian's games and pleas for attention.
Pichner watched from afar and smiled. Her son will remain hospitalized until his blood sugar has stabilized. He struggles to eat enough, so he receives nourishment through a feeding tube to maintain his blood sugar levels.
But most of the time, he's an energetic little boy who likes to race cars.
"He's always just like that," she said, "you wouldn't even know" that he is sick.
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