Making hospital stays less scary

RICHMOND — Do you remember your first trip to the emergency room?

First off, if you do remember, you were likely heading there because you were in pain, or perhaps running a very high fever, or involved in some kind of accident. The circumstances for an ER visit are typically on some level of scary. And when you get there, depending on the day, you could be surrounded by all sorts of noises, from beeping machines to urgent shouts or screams, and exposed to different sights or smells that can also elevate anxiety, especially when you're a kid.

It was one of the dozens of scenarios registered nurse Melissa Abderrahim discussed when she visited the seventh-grade health class at Richmond Consolidated School back in September. She went to nursing school with Richmond school nurse, Cristina Lenfest, where they both earned their bachelor of science degrees in the field. Abderrahim currently works shifts as a charge nurse in Pittsfield's Berkshire Medical Center Emergency Department.

Lenfest said that the Massachusetts Comprehensive Health Curriculum Frameworks requires her to teach a standard on community and public health. Last year, she brought in some guest speakers to talk about the field. This year, she wanted to get the kids more involved. "We have these standards to teach," she said, "but for me the big question is how do we make it interesting and fun?"

She ultimately found a project that gave students a glimpse of what it's like to care for and comfort kids in the ER.

Lenfest had each health class student write a question to ask Abderrahim during her visit. The questions ranged from what is the law known as HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and how it protects patients, to how the ER addresses opioid-related cases, to about the ages and backgrounds among patients.

Over the past four months, Abderrahim said, the Berkshire Medical Center Emergency Department has seen 1,300 pediatric patients, a cohort consisting of anyone age 18 and younger.

"Some kids are really scared when they come here," said Abderrahim. She said some are just scared due to their emergency medical condition, while others, like many adults, have a fear of needles, like the kind that might be used to deliver an intravenous, or IV, medication. Some kids scream, while others might be so sick they just lay there on a hospital bed, waiting for help.

"In nursing school, we're taught to think about a whole range of patients that come in. So how I take care of a 50-year-old man will be different than if I'm taking care of a 6-year-old child,"Abderrahim said. So, she said, she and her fellow nurses work to try and comfort children and their families while in the ER, taking the extra time to talk them through each step in each procedure to make it less scary.

After Abderrahim's initial visit, Lenfest introduced a project to her seventh-grade students: to create so-called "Boo Boo Bags," filled with toys and activities that nurses can hand out to children to further comfort them during an ER visit. Lenfest had seen such a project posted to a social media website, and thought it would be a nice thing to do locally.

"I think it gives them an idea of having empathy for each other, and being a patient that young," Lenfest said.

"I think the Boo Boo Bags are a wonderful idea," said Abderrahim. She said that while there have been other projects for pediatric care, nothing like this currently exists at the hospital.

Lenfest's project tied in multiple subject areas, from mathematics to art to social science and literacy. The seventh graders were given a budget and set a goal of creating 200 bags. They then had to work with their budget and research items that could be purchased in bulk without going over their spending limits.

"It was a little overwhelming at first," said seventh-grade student, Ryan Williams.

So, for example, while every kid seems to love fidget spinners, purchasing 200 of them would have eaten up their budget. The class said such a thing also wouldn't be accessible for every child. In they end, each bag — a simple white paper one with handles — was filled with the following items: a small box of crayons, two coloring booklets, a finger puppet, a bending animal toy (to help with stress, Lenfest said), and sticker activity.

The Grade 7 students, with support of technology teacher Dan Sadlowski, each designed a potential logo for the project. The logos were shown to the whole school, and the students voted for their favorite.

It was Megan Mitchell who designed the winning artwork, a friendly-looking turtle with a red heart-shaped balloon. Sadlowski printed 200 stickers based on Mitchell's design, to go onto the bags.

"I think it's so cool that we're going to help with pediatric health care," Mitchell said. "I can't wait to see their faces when we bring in all the bags."

Student Vova Tsyrkunou said he was particularly looking forward to the visit, as he hopes to some day work in the medical field. The other participating students included: Tessa Hanson, Aiden Hoogs, Elliot Krantz, Brady Mickle, Collin Parker, Serena Rhind, Emily Roller, and Nate Smith.

They delivered the Boo Boo Bags to the hospital on Friday morning, and got to visit again with Abderrahim and some other hospital staff.

"It shows the kids how there can be a better experience in the ER, and I think this is also setting up for them a foundation on how they perceive health care," Lenfest said of the semester-long project.

Richmond Consolidated Principal Monica Zanin said she was proud of Lenfest and the seventh-grade health students.

"This really fits in with our school-wide goals. At each grade level, we look to work together to figure out project to work with the community. Promoting social-emotional learning is key," she said.


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