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Looking at the Whole Child

Area hospitals take an integrative approach to pediatric patients

May 2013

A 6-year-old was lying in his hospital bed in and out of consciousness. He was dying of cancer. During the child's hospital stay his father spoke to Chris Donaghey, a Registered Nurse at Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent, about how much the child liked to play music. Apparently he could drum up quite a racket. It was a sound the father missed.

Donaghey and a Child Life Specialist colleague had an idea. They reached out to an area music ministry whose volunteers use music to help children. Soon a volunteer arrived in the child's hospital room bearing guitar and drums.

"When the music volunteer came the child had enough strength with one of his hands to hit the little hand drums a few times," said Donaghey. The child noticeably began to relax. His dad relaxed, too.

"It was a very lovely circumstance. When I came in after [the session] was done the boy was able to smile a little and nodded to acknowledge he liked doing that. Talking to the music ministry person afterward he said he was profoundly impacted to be able to give the child a little bit of comfort and to help the boy remember what he enjoyed doing," Donaghey said.

Though the child's comfort level was not measured, it was evident the drums helped both the boy and his dad. The drums inspired a sense of normalcy and offered a moment of relief from the hospital setting and the terminal cancer.

Stories like this are playing out more and more as hospitals integrate complementary and alternative therapies into their pediatric practices. Of course, music therapy is only one approach. The list of alternative healthcare options is long and includes naturopathy, acupuncture, meditation, prayer, yoga, biofeedback, hypnosis, guided imagery, and biofield to name a few.

But, is integrative medicine a good idea for young hospital patients?

"I think it's a very good idea so long as it's approached judiciously," Donaghey said.

An integrated approach to medicine combines conventional medicine and complementary and alternative therapies that have shown sufficient evidence of safety and efficacy. Top hospitals like Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent, Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health and Community Hospital North are incorporating various alternative therapies into their pediatric settings often by way of child life programs.

Melissa Sexton has been a Child Life Specialist with Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health for 12 years because she believes in taking a whole child approach with patients.

Sexton says alternative therapies like art, music or massage can help a medical team understand what's going on in a child's mind and body and ultimately lead to a better plan of care for that patient.

Alternative health practices can and often do extend outside of the hospital setting. Dr. Kathleen Swec, Pediatrician at Community Physician Network, says more families are using complementary and alternative medicine and more providers are being asked by patients or parents about it. She believes the topic is only going to become more mainstream. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics now keeps pediatricians updated on such practices and how they are being used in pediatric care.

Dr. Swec encourages parents to inform their child's healthcare provider about any alternative health practice their child is doing. "That knowledge is essential to evaluating the whole treatment plan for the whole patient. We can monitor these therapies to see they are achieving their intended goal and monitor for any potential side effects," she said.

The goal of both conventional medicine and complementary and alternative medicine, Dr. Swec reminds parents, is to prevent disease, promote health, relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. It seems then that pediatric patients and their families have much to gain when hospitals take a more integrative approach to their care.

Tags: In This Issue, Pediatric Health

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