Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Do you remember taking your child to the pediatrician´s office? You would walk up to the receptionist, announce that so-and-so was here for his or her booster or that so-and-so was here because he or she had a sore throat.

Then you would sit down and spend two hours promising your child that the doctor wouldn´t hurt him. Most of the time you had your fingers crossed because you knew you were lying.

Well, two weeks ago I went to the pediatrician with my friend and her grandchild, Jonathan. We walked into the pediatric clinic and, abracadabra, we were greeted by the most astonishing surprise.

“Hi, I´m Ginger,” she said. “If you´d like to play in my playroom, it´s right over here. Just put any toys your child puts into his or her mouth into the big bin on the shelf. They´re sterilized every night, so they are safe for your child.”

I looked into the playroom. About 20 children were sitting on the floor with toys in their mouths, which they would discard periodically and replace with toys discarded from the mouths of other children. The room could have been labeled the Juvenile Germ Exchange Unit. The children, however, were having a very good time tasting a medley of Fisher Price people and giant Legos.

More remarkably, their parents were sitting close by reading a variety of magazines from a stack on one of the end tables. They actually were relaxed. It was clearly an improvement over the old system. But because there were no Modern Maturity magazines and I was no longer interested in learning how to breast-feed my second child while planning quality time with my first, I decided to find Ginger and interrogate her about what else she did besides greet people and show them her playroom.

Ginger´s job, it turns out, is solely to take all the stress out of a child´s visit to the doctor. Schooled in psychology, followed by child-life training, she is called a child-life specialist. Apparently employees like her are so common in medical centers today that Dr. Carter was dating one on “ER” a few weeks ago.

Anyway, back to Ginger, our child-life specialist. She informed us that the medical center we visited had more than 20 child-life specialists on staff.

“Since our little patients can´t tell us what they´re thinking, we try to assure them that they are in a safe place and take all the anxiety out of their visit to the doctor,” Ginger said.

After several hours, it was time to relocate from the toy room to the examining room. We watched Jonathan toddle after Ginger while she blew bubbles in the air. Laughing and swatting at the magical translucent balls, he followed her toward the examining room, never suspecting what the friendly bubbles were leading him toward.

“You see,” she continued, “sometimes a child needs to be separated from his parents temporarily.” Then she looked at us and added, “or his grandparents.” (If she was such a great psychologist, why couldn´t she pretend we looked young enough to be parents and relieve some of the stress we have over aging?)

“You see the bubbles go away,” she continued. “But we blow more bubbles, and the child sees them come back. The parents may have to go away, or leave the room temporarily also, but the child begins to understand they will come back, too.”

“Yes, but maybe they will be different parents, just like the bubbles, have you ever thought of that?” I countered, even though it clearly was inappropriate.

“Here, why don´t you continue to blow the bubbles. I have another little patient who needs my attention,” Ginger said, trying to disengage herself from our conversation.

“But wait, I have a question to ask,” I said. “Do you have child-life specialists for people my age? Because if you think these children, who don´t know what to expect, are frightened, you should see people my age when we visit a doctor. We know what to expect, and frankly, we could use child-life teams.”

“I think the doctor´s a real wimp,” my friend commented as Ginger slipped away. “When I brought my children to the pediatrician for shots, he would just call three nurses to hold them down. OK, maybe it wasn´t the best psychological approach, but the kids all finished college. At least he didn´t hide behind some bubble-blowing machine just out of braces.”

I couldn´t comment. I was very busy trying to blow bubbles myself. Compared to Ginger, I was a miserable failure. My bubbles either broke before leaving the small ring or hit Jonathan in the face, frightening him. Of course, I did not have a near-decade of training in the psychology of bubble blowing.

By the time the doctor arrived, I had spilled bubble water all over the examining table and two of the chairs in the room and inside his rubber-glove drawer — which, incidentally, was not child-proofed. Jonathan discovered that. Jonathan also screamed so loud and became so agitated when the doctor tried to examine him that the doctor had to call in three nurses, a resident and Ginger to help.

Which leads me to say that although Ginger is a great improvement over the lollipops our doctors gave out after examining our little ones, fear of the doctor is as instinctive as fear of falling. And even if the doctor has a “Ginger” on staff, he or she might want to keep two or three nurses around to help when the going gets tough.

Ellen Rosenthal is the grandmother of 2-year-old Matthew. Her column appears the first Tuesday of each month. Send any comments and suggestions to her by mail: PO Box 60701, Potomac, Md. 20859; or by e-mail (grandtalesaol.com).

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