Journal Archive > 2002 > June

Elizabeth Olear

Elizabeth Olear
© Mark Morelli

Graduate student helps de-stress medical treatment for kids

Whether it's the pressure to produce results or the stress that comes with meeting deadlines, every job has its challenges. But for Elizabeth Olear, a child life specialist intern in the Pediatric Radiology Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, the challenges she faces are a little different.

"One of my first experiences with a patient was with a 10-year-old boy who had strong feelings about not doing a procedure," says Olear, a graduate student in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development. "He was having an upper GI procedure, and he was supposed to drink some barium so they could see his GI tract. The patient had tripped his mom and had bruised her arm, all in the process of voicing his displeasure over the procedure. So the radiology technician asked me if I could speak to him."

During Olear's conversation with the young boy, she found out that he loved animals. Before long, he grew more talkative and animated. And then he drank a little barium and then a little more. "When we got on the subject of pets, he became very excited because he wants to be a veterinarian when he grows up," Olear says. "We talked for a bit, and I suggested that he take a sip of barium, and because I had developed a rapport with him, he slowly started to drink. He wasn't completely willing, and there were times when he wanted to go home, but he was able to drink the rest of the barium, and the procedure went well."

Olear's role at Mass. General is to educate young patients and their families about the radiological procedures they will undergo. One day she could be telling an 11-year-old boy what to expect with an MRI. Another day she could be counseling a 7-year-old girl on the ins and outs of a chest X-ray. "It's important to be honest with the patient so they are not surprised by the procedure. If a procedure is going to be painful, I try to let them know in the best way possible," Olear says. "I try to start at the level of understanding of the patient. I need to know how they feel emotionally about a procedure and their own understanding of what will happen."

Olear also counsels patients and parents on the impact of hospitalization and the therapeutic intervention of play activities. She is present during many of the procedures, offering emotional support and encouragement. "It's difficult to watch the procedures, especially the ones that are more invasive or a little more painful," Olear says. "In the beginning, it was difficult to separate myself from the emotional experience because you think, 'If that were my child or sibling, I would feel badly that they were in pain,' but at the same time, you want to alleviate that pain and relieve their fears."

Olear became interested in child life work while she was a Tufts undergraduate. During her sophomore year, she volunteered in the child life playroom at Tufts-New England Medical Center's Floating Hospital for Children. The playroom allows young patients to express their feelings about their illness and hospitalization through play and other activities. Olear, who earned B.S. degrees in biology and child development in May 2001, entered the graduate program at Tufts last fall with an interest in maternal and child health and children's health care.

There were few opportunities available in this field, so Olear, Peggy Powers, director of the child health program in the child development department, and Dr. Diego Jaramillo, chief of pediatric radiology at Mass. General, set out to create a program from scratch. With the help of a grant from the Stone Foundation, matching funds from Tufts' University College of Citizenship and Public Service and support from the Tufts University Center for Children (TUCC), they did just that. As Olear's academic advisor, Prof. Donald Wertlieb, director of TUCC, supervises her internship.

Olear's work is part of the larger mission of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and TUCC aimed at helping children in the Tufts community and beyond.

The development of the child life program at Mass. General has been a truly collaborative effort and one that has a promising future. "Even though I have only been doing this work for a few months, there has already been a positive impact on the care received by patients," Olear says. "By taking the time to talk to these patients, to listen to their concerns, to reassure them and to present the procedures in understandable and manageable steps, the children have had an easier time with the procedures, and that makes me very happy."

Bob Bochnak covers the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences for the Tufts Journal.