How do you even begin to explain a pandemic to a child? How do you help them deal with the complicated emotions of fear and uncertainty when you’re struggling to make sense of them yourself?

Add to that the possibility that the child is already sick – a cancer patient, for instance – and you have an idea of the job Talia Haviv is dealing with every day when she travels from her home in Hell’s Kitchen to work at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

A child life specialist, she helps children and families cope with the stress and uncertainty of acute and chronic illness, loss, and bereavement through play, preparation, and education.

If a child asks if something’s going to hurt and it might hurt, we’ll describe that to them.

“The best approach is honesty,” she says. “We want to be completely honest … and we don’t want to make any promises. If a child asks if something’s going to hurt and it might hurt, we’ll describe that to them. We might say, ‘Other children tell us that this is what helps them.’ They might want to take five deep breaths. Or hold or squeeze Mommy’s hand. Do they want to count? Do they want to look? Giving them choices and control over the situation is very helpful.

“And there is a lot of different research out there that shows how our work improves these children’s coping skills,” she says. For example, many young children – aged four or five – have to be sedated before they have MRI or CAT scans. “Then they meet with a child life specialist. We prepare them, we let them know what the steps are from the beginning to the end. We give them coping skills, we listen to them … and then they’re able to perform without having any anesthesia.

“This doesn’t happen, obviously, with everybody. But it’s enough that radiology have hired their own child life specialist because they realize what a huge impact it has.”

Since the COVID-19 crisis struck, with most of her hospital adapted for patients with the virus, she’s facing new challenges, as youngsters adapt to seeing staff wearing PPEs.

“It’s scary because suddenly you have masks and gloves on, you have to have a gown and a shield on and they think, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why do I need this? Why is this happening?’ Also, hearing everything on the news and seeing the reactions from their parents, it’s extremely fearful.

“The first thing I would do is ask them what they know. You always want to get an idea of what is processing in the child’s mind to help correct any misconceptions. Then I would start with explaining what a virus is. I would help them understand what is considered contagious; that, if you sneeze or if you cough and then you don’t wash your hands and touch something else – that’s how people catch colds. That’s how people catch flu. This is a brand new virus that we don’t know much about, and because of this, a lot of people are getting very, very sick. We’re trying to learn the best things to do to help everyone so they’re more comfortable and people don’t continue getting sick.

“Then I’d talk about some ways we can help: washing our hands, not touching our face, not touching our nose, staying home, wearing a mask. We’d go through all of that step by step.”

She also has to remind young patients that – in some cases – staying home isn’t the best thing for them.

“Since I specialize in hematology-oncology, it could be very confusing, because the news is telling everyone not to leave their homes. And here we have children coming into hospital to get their treatment. So we have to help them realize that their parents are doing the right thing; that they’re safe.”

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