Child life specialist helps Mary Free Bed’s youngest patients cope with hospitalization

A child life specialist wearing a black short-sleeved shirt and a blond top knot plays Connect Four with a young patient. The patient's back is to the camera and the two are in a room lit with large windows. Mariah Bruff always knew she wanted to become a teacher, but she didn’t expect a hospital to be her classroom and its youngest patients to be her students.

Mariah studied education at Grand Valley State University, but found teaching in front of a large group in a small classroom wasn’t for her. Her sister, a pediatric nurse, suggested Mariah would excel in a hospital setting and Mariah agreed. She enrolled at Texas State University, where she earned a master’s degree in Family and Child Studies and began working at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.

Mariah witnessed the fear children and families faced when coming to the hospital, and she knew she could do more to help alleviate that stress.

“Kids have a lot of fear and anxiety when coming to a new place,” Mariah said. “If I can help decrease that, then they can have a more positive, comfortable stay.”

A native of Frankenmuth, Mariah returned to Michigan in August 2017 to join Mary Free Bed as a child life specialist in the hospital’s inpatient Pediatric Program.

“I love the environment and the people here,” she said. “The pediatric team is amazing.”

Mary Free Bed is the only inpatient rehabilitation hospital in the region with a unit designated exclusively for children and teens who have experienced brain injury, brain-related illnesses and concussion; cancer, neurological conditions, stroke, spinal cord injury, fractures, chronic pain conditions, surgery, burns and other debilitating illnesses and injuries.

Mariah’s primary role at Mary Free Bed is to help patients and families cope with the stress of a hospital stay. She uses therapeutic play and educational techniques to help patients adjust to the hospital setting and reduce their anxiety during medical procedures and therapies.

“I get to know the kids and work one-on-one with them,” Mariah said. “I’m like a teacher in the hospital. I educate, support and encourage the kids to help make their experience in the hospital less scary.”

To make their stay at Mary Free Bed as fun and happy as possible, Mariah is always prepared with the essentials: smiles, laughter, creativity – and syringes.

“One of the most popular activities I do with the kids is syringe painting,” she said. “The kids are having fun and enjoying squirting the paint from the syringe, but they are also learning and becoming more comfortable in the hospital environment.”

Although Mariah has been with the hospital for a short time, the impact she has made is far from small.

“It’s rewarding when you hear the kids that say, ‘I thought the hospital was going to be scary, but Mary Free Bed was fun and made me happy’.”

Mariah works with children of all ages, but she also supports their parents. She recently completed certification in car seat training to teach families how to properly install a car seat to make sure their children are safe.

Mariah is always looking for new activities, events and visitors to bring smiles to the hospital. She has invited magicians, the Cosplay Crusaders superhero team, Grand Rapids Griffins hockey players and Grand Rapids Drive basketball players for visits.

“The kids get really excited to see them and interact with them,” she said. “I try to do things that will brighten their day.”

Mariah also started a new program for patients in partnership with Wish Upon a Teen. The national non-profit organization offers Design My Room, a program for teenagers facing extended hospitalization.

Mariah meets with the patient to fill out a questionnaire about his or her interests and hobbies, and sends it to the organization. Wish Upon a Teen sends clothing, accessories and decorations directly to the patient’s hospital room. Mariah says it’s a simple room makeover with an incredible impact.

“We had one room decorated for a young girl who really liked the comic book character Harley Quinn,” Mariah said. “Wish Upon a Teen sent her a ton of Harley Quinn-themed clothing and accessories, and it made her so happy.”

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