Children’s hospital employees work around social distancing challenges

On a typical day, Sarah McWaters’ musical instruments create the soothing sounds that ease young patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite.

But the coronavirus pandemic has altered how McWaters, a music therapist, and other employees at the hospital do their jobs. Social distancing recommendations have prevented employees like McWaters from physically interacting with the hospital’s patients, who often worked with her to compose a song to describe their feelings or play an instrument to distract them from their pain.

“A lot of the patients I’m seeing are working on pain management and coping because they may have been in the hospital a lot,” McWaters said.

As a musical therapist, McWaters also helps patients analyze lyrics or write songs to better understand and communicate their medical difficulties.

“Some children can’t actively engage, but listening helps calm them down,” she said.


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Before the virus appeared, McWaters worked with patients one-on-one, but now she has to get creative, including playing outside their hospital rooms. She created a music to-go bag that includes small instruments, such as bells and maracas, and a CD for them to use at home with their parents.

“It’s a way for us to at least provide something normalizing to kids and tell them that we’re still here to support them,” McWaters said.

Social distancing restrictions have also affected how staff keep patients entertained.

Patient activity specialist Jalessa Warren works in the hospital’s Child Zone, an area where children engage in activities such as creating slime, cooking or arts and crafts. But she, too, has had to mix things up.

“We went from hosting three groups a day to doing to-go activities,” Warren said. She and other activity specialists made craft kits so patients can work on them in their rooms. Patients can tune into the hospital’s closed-circuit activity channel and learn how to make the crafts or play games including bingo.

“It’s like watching a cooking show, but you’re able to interact with us as well,” Warren said, adding children are still able to go outside in the hospital’s garden area to get fresh air.

McWaters said patients are aware of the changes and staff work to keep things as normal as possible for them.

“We talk a lot about how children take on the stress of their parents,” McWaters said. “Some of our younger patients are aware. For some children, it’s intimidating to have several people walking by with masks on.”

“For older patients, we’re having conversations about the importance that they’re in the hospital to get better and tell them that we’re doing everything to keep them safe,” McWaters said.

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