HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Mary Wallace’s workspace is one-quarter office, three-quarters Toys “R” Us.
Stuffed in beside the mandatory computer, with a space carved out for a desk chair, Wallace has mounds of baby dolls, stacks of playing cards and board games and bubbles aplenty.
At first glance, it might appear the 23-year-old is just a big kid who never grew up, especially since one of her buddies is Dylan Kiser, 2.
“The day before yesterday, Dylan threw a fit because I walked outside,” said his mom, Mary Kiser.
“By the time I came back, he and Mary were looking out the window together, laughing and having a good time.”
Wallace and Dylan share a special bond because Dylan is battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia and Wallace is the child life specialist, a newly staffed, one-of-a-kind position, at Hoops Family Children’s Hospital at Cabell Huntington Hospital.
As a child life specialist certified by the Child Life Council, Wallace works in the care of children in the hospital and their families.
Through her work, children experience therapeutic play and learn coping and adaptation skills during medical procedures and hospitalization.
“I wear many different hats, and a lot of what I do requires me to think like a kid,” said Wallace, whose education came in the form of a child and family development degree from Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga., followed by an internship at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
She worked at Children’s Hospital at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, Ga., before coming in Huntington in October.
“Hospitals and doctors and nurses are scary for them. It’s a hard place for a child to be, so I try to help them cope with everything around them and understand what’s going on.”
As an extension of the medical team, Wallace, originally from Madison, Ga., works closely with the nurses and physicians to understand each child’s medical challenges and upcoming procedures, and crafts therapeutic play to help them understand what’s happening or, sometimes, serve as a distraction.
“I do a lot of medical play with real medical equipment and a lot of role playing, where the child gets to be the doctor,” Wallace said. “That’s how kids learn — through play.”
Wallace’s arsenal is an impressive one. She has all the typical toys children might have at home, authentic medical equipment such as stethoscopes and syringes, an iPad with educational apps such as the sounds made by a CT scan or MRI machine, and, of course, Radical Randy.
“Radical Randy is one of my Legacy dolls, and he helps kids with asthma understand what’s going on in their body,” Wallace said.
Radical Randy features a rib cage that opens to reveal lungs, healthy and inflamed airways and inflatable bronchioles.
He’s kin to a second Legacy doll that features a real port and PICC line.
“We can role play with these and talk about what’s going to happen. It’s a concrete way to help them understand even though it’s fun and play,” said Wallace, who works with children from birth to 18. “It helps parents, too. It becomes an educational environment for the entire family.”
Kiser is one of those parents.
“When something like this happens, your child is terrified. You’re terrified. Mary has not only helped him, but she’s helped me, she’s helped my other boys,” said Kiser, mom to two other boys, ages 9 and 14.
“She’s good at helping you figure out what to say, games to play, ways to help him eat, keeping connected with the other kids. It’s comforting.”
Prior to any medical procedure, Wallace works with the child and family to make things “less scary,” and often is on-hand during a procedure, such as removing an IV line, to soothe the child and keep them distracted.
Her average visit with a child is, well, not average, she said.
“There’s no average time because there’s no average child,” Wallace said.
“Sometimes it’s 20 minutes, sometimes it’s all day.” Recently, Wallace said she had one patient who refused to sleep in her hospital bed at night.
“That’s where they were doing procedures and poking and prodding, so I told her mom, ‘Let’s make her bed a positive place,’ and we played some games, and it became a fun place,” she said. “It was the first night she stayed in her bed all night.”
Another child, afraid of a basic syringe, was treated to an afternoon of syringe painting. Wallace loaded syringes with paint, turning standard medical equipment into something less scary.
“I see what the medical plan is and translate it to kid language,” she said.
Dr. Samantha Cook said Wallace makes the jobs of the hospital’s physicians and nurses “better and easier.”
“She makes a really terrible time for these kids less terrible,” Cook said.
“They’re not as scared or upset or bored. She has such a positive impact on the kids and this great enthusiasm to expand to the NICU and the nursery. We’re just in the beginning. It’s only going to get better from here.”
Besides the obvious passion Wallace carries for her job and her patients, there’s a tinge of ulterior motive in what she does.
“I can watch cartoons now and call it research,” she said, with a laugh.