Child-life specialist helps parents, kids cope with cancer


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Khane Neagle’s eyes lit up as Kathy Whiteside, the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital senior child-life specialist, carried in “magic noodles” to entertain the 3-year-old cancer patient. The rest of the visit was filled with laughter and playtime.

Whiteside is an escape for children such as Khane, who are used to doctors and nurses coming in and out of their rooms.

As a child-life specialist, her job is to help families and patients cope with the stress that follows a cancer diagnosis. Whiteside, 49, said her job could be compared to Lamaze for a pregnant woman, but instead of pregnancy, she deals with cancer.

She teaches children and their families coping techniques while providing fun activities so they kids can live normally.

“You know that their lives will be completely turned over forever,” she said.

Originally, Whiteside said she planned on being a teacher because she had always wanted to work with children. But in college, she discovered the newly formed position of child-life specialist and changed her mind.

Since then, she has worked at the Children’s Hospital for almost 27 years.

“A lot of what we do is build trusting relationships,” she said.

She said it takes time for children to get used to someone new, so she slowly makes her way into the cancer patients’ lives by offering coloring books and activities for the children to do, she said.

Whiteside said she and others in her department don’t wear uniforms in an attempt to get away from “white-coat syndrome” — or when young kids are afraid of uniformed medical professionals.

Shannon Schroetter, a nurse at the hospital, said Whiteside has done a great job making the kids feel more comfortable.

“She is a very integral part of everything that goes on with these kids’ days,” Schroetter said.

Whiteside plans such activities as “Brothers and Sisters,” in which children who have siblings with cancer gather and talk with other children in similar situations.

“You see this really awesome level of acceptance here,” she said.

Catie Neagle, Khane’s mother, said she’s thankful for what Whiteside has done.

“The activities that they do with our kids takes our mind off the bad things that happen,” she said.

Khane was diagnosed in September 2010.

“Itwould have been a lot tougher,” Catie Neagle said about their first encounter with Whiteside. “It was easier for Khane to be distracted.”

During a visit last week, Whiteside played at Khane’s bedside, even holding up a garbage can and having him throw his trash like a basketball into a hoop.

She continued to play with Khane until all of the noodles were used.

“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” Khane said from the hospital bed. “I like to do this.”

Whiteside said her goal is to make sure the kids don’t remember the bad parts of cancer but the fun times.

“I feel happy that I can help them be the person that they are and not the illness,” she said.

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