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Connor’s Heroes Welcomes New Child Life Specialist

When you receive an email from Meredith Burns, MS, CCLS, she closes it with this wonderful quote from Dr. Seuss: “Don’t give up. I believe in you all. A person’s a person no matter how small.”

Meredith understands the anxiety a family feels when their child is diagnosed with a difficult illness. She is a Certified Child Life Specialist (CLS) with Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR). Ask any hero parent, they will tell you how Child Life is an essential member of their child’s care team.

Connor’s Heroes is happy to announce, at the end of February 2022, Meredith will be a part of the Connor’s Heroes team. She will focus on the pediatric hematology and oncology patients when they are admitted to CHoR.

Having a CHoR CLS for pediatric hematology and oncology patients is very much needed. Especially when Connor’s Heroes opens the five Rooms Filled With Hope in The Wonder Tower. The Wonder Tower, a consolidated, state-of-the-art inpatient children’s hospital hopes to open in 2023.

Connor’s Heroes Board Member, Marisa Cherry, is excited to have a CLS for our hero families. Marisa and Steve’s daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2013.

“I spent countless weeks in the hospital with my daughter doing the best I could to explain the unexplainable, keep her spirits positive, and to comfort her through pain. It was terrifying and exhausting,” said Marisa. “Soon, Connor’s Heroes will open five Rooms Filled With Hope in the amazing Wonder Tower. Together the CLS and the Connor’s Heroes Rooms will give our families dedicated, safe spaces beyond the four walls of their rooms. CLS will help parents by talking in kid-friendly terms about procedures, providing necessities at just the right time, offering diversions like art therapy, and celebrating treatment milestones.”

Meredith Burns, Child Life Specialist
Meredith Burns, Child Life Specialist, Picture Credit: Children's Hospital at VCU

Meredith explains how the team of Child Life Specialist at CHoR help pediatric patients. She talks about how she can ease a child’s fears and decrease a family’s stress when they are in the hospital.

How does a Child Life Specialist (CLS) help a family? 

I like to say it is my job to bring the hospital world down to a patient’s level (of understanding). A CLS has a background in child development and a specialty in how that development can be impacted by hospitalization. We help patients and families cope, in a developmentally appropriate way, with their hospital experience. Not every experience is going to be fun, but as a CLS, I hope to make the experience less overwhelming and traumatizing for everyone involved.

A child often is in cancer treatment for years. How will a CLS help a family at diagnosis and throughout treatment?

I try to build my relationship with a patient during the testing process to learn what the exact diagnosis is. It is important to create positive coping techniques that can last through treatment. Upon receiving a diagnosis, I can help the patient better understand their diagnosis. CLS can prepare patients for procedures, use medical play to teach about new support devices they may need (gastrostomy tubes, central lines, ports, etc.), and distract them during painful procedures (IV starts, dressing changes). Also, CLS can assist caregivers on how to explain the diagnosis to siblings and facilitate ways to continue the sibling bond while the patient is in the hospital. 

Throughout treatment, CLS can be there to provide emotional support on hard days, as well as provide opportunities for play and fun. I believe patients need to feel like children, even though they are in the hospital. 

A crucial role of child life is to assess patients and families where they are at that moment and be respectful of their wish for alone time. Child life can be a friendly face who patients and families see if they need multiple admissions.

Connor’s Heroes mission is to provide hope, guidance, and support to a child with cancer and their family. How will you support Connor’s Heroes mission?

I can be a support system within the hospital to help patients and families navigate their cancer journey. I provide patients with the foundation for understanding their diagnosis and encouraging each patient to advocate for their needs. I want to instill hope in the patient and their family that they have it within themselves to make it through and that they are not alone in this journey.

Outside of the hospital, how do you spend your free time?

I enjoy watching movies, being with family, and going to sporting events. I also love to spend time with my dog Slider and taking him to the park. I really like to travel and learn about history all over the world. Over the summer, I took Slider on walking tours around Richmond through a great program called History Hounds Tours.

Erin Gardner, Program Director, and Anne-Randolph Carter, Program Coordinator, are excited to have Meredith a part of the Connor’s Heroes team.

Almost every week a child in Central Virginia is diagnosed with cancer. Connor’s Heroes gives a family financial assistance and emotional support throughout a child’s cancer journey. Connor’s Heroes starts with a Heroes Bag and Backpack. Inside, a child will find an iPad, crafts, toys, and games. A parent will receive the first (of many) gift cards. While their child is in treatment, the family will get gift cards for gas and groceries, a house cleaning, meal delivery, or a special treat for a birthday or holiday.

Thank you to our community of heroes who made it possible for our childhood cancer families to have a CLS in the pediatric hospital.