Young cancer patient boosts spirits of Montreal Children's Hospital staff — one candy at a time

Without volunteers to lead some of the activities or offer respite to parents, the hospital's team of child life specialists are going the extra mile.

With no volunteers and next-to-no visitors, child life specialists work to keep patients in good head space

While she recovered from chemotherapy, Kayla Campilii, 10, ran a makeshift dépanneur from her hospital bed at the Montreal Children's Hospital. (Submitted by Montreal Children's Hospital)

What do you do to pass the time when you're confined to your hospital room all day?

Well, for Kayla Campilii, it involved sharing her love of candy.

When the 10-year-old found out the dépanneur at the Montreal Children's Hospital was closed due to COVID-19, she decided to start her own candy store — from her hospital bed.

Kayla, who is recovering from chemotherapy, got the idea last week.

She sent her mother out to buy candy, then got to work setting prices and creating her storefront window to get ready for customers.

"It worked great because it kept her busy," said Kayla's mom, Linda Sciscente.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the Montreal Children's Hospital has been closed to visitors, except parents or a caregiver. It can get lonely.

The makeshift dépanneur ensured a steady stream of medical staff who popped in to say hello and satisfy their sugar cravings.

"She got a lot of staff coming into her room. She was socializing with them that way," said Sciscente.

What to choose? What to choose? An oncology nurse at the Montreal Children's Hospital peruses young patient Kayla Campilii's list of candy offerings. (Submitted by Linda Sciscente)

Kayla gave each nurse five bingo chips, valued at a dollar each. They could then choose from an eclectic menu which included Smarties, Starbursts and Swedish Berries.

Kayla also did a draw for a goody bag.

"The nurses would come in and put their name on a paper, and she would draw their names at 3 p.m., and another one at 9 p.m." said Sciscente with a laugh. "That way, she covered both shifts."

Welcome distraction

Kayla is one of 150 patients at the Montreal Children's Hospital.

Before COVID-19, Sciscente said Kayla would get pet therapy or play with other children during group activities such as crafts or cupcake decorating.

Physical-distancing restrictions now make that impossible.

Without volunteers to lead some of the activities or offer respite to parents, the hospital's team of child life specialists are going the extra mile.

With just six of them for the entire hospital, it's a big undertaking.

Their job has always involved helping patients cope with their hospitalization and medical treatment. Amid the pandemic, they have more to juggle — like finding creative ways to make sure their small patients are in a good head space.

"Through play, kids are able to express and reveal their doubts, their frustrations — their fears that might not be otherwise voiced," said Afifah Chaudhry, a child life specialist who works in the hematology and oncology unit.

Chaudhry said she and her colleagues meet each week to brainstorm themes for different individualized craft kits and puts them into Ziplock bags for the patients to work on and decorate their own rooms.

The child life specialists prepared individualized craft kits for patients at the Montreal Children's Hospital, including the ever-popular Ça va aller rainbows. (Submitted by Montreal Children's Hospital)

Lately, the "Ça va aller" rainbows were a big hit, as were Easter crafts. The team is now preparing kits for Mother's Day next month.

In addition to the crafts, Chaudhry drops in to do one-on-one activities with patients, including Lego competitions, puzzles and in-room movie days.

"Just yesterday, one of our patients wanted to watch Frozen, so we made her room into a movie theatre setting, closed the lights and made some popcorn that she was able to have with her mom in her room," said Chaudhry.

Although many of the pre-teens and teenage patients are well-connected to their friends through social media or video messaging, Chaudhry said some also enjoy working on more complicated, architectural Lego projects.

"I've taken some photos of some of the Lego creations the older teenagers have done to show the younger kids who want to be challenged," she said.

During Kayla's most recent stay at the hospital, Chaudhry dropped off a board game and some craft kits so Kayla could make her own pillow and paint pottery.

It's appreciated. Kayla is home right now but will be back later this month for another round of chemotherapy before she undergoes surgery.

"It's extremely important," said Sciscente. "They are a good distraction from what is happening."

Post-COVID party planning

On the in-patient wards, time capsules are a popular activity.

"We are part of history right now," said Krystalanne Pacheco, another child life specialist.

Pacheco said some of the patients are incorporating information about the COVID-19 experience both inside and outside the hospital and how it has changed their lives and the way people communicate.

As child life specialists, Krystalanne Pacheco and Afifah Chaudhry use play as a way to help patients cope with their hospitalization and medical treatment at the Montreal Children's Hospital. (Submitted by Montreal Children's Hospital)

Some children have decided to record videos and save them on a USB to watch later. Some have written letters to their future selves, explaining what they are living through right now. Some are even creating comic strips, said Pacheco.

"With one of our patients, we planned a post-COVID party and how they feel they'd like to celebrate all their time spent in isolation," said Pacheco.

Pacheco was particularly touched by how patients are illustrating social distancing, which can be a physical distance but not necessarily an emotional distance.

"I've seen drawings where patients are drawing family members at a distance, but unified by a heart."

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