Specialist helps children in serious medical care deal with the stress

Jun 27, 2021

During her childhood, Rhode Island-native Jessica Cerullo spent a lot of time at Boston Children’s Hospital as her older brother went through cancer treatment.

She noted while the situation itself “could be a bit scary,” staff always made sure to provide a positive hospital experience.

Since May, she's been working to bring that same sense of comfort and positivity to kids and families at the hospital’s campus in North Dartmouth as its new Child Life Specialist.

“I remember what they did and the impact they had on my family,” she said. “If we can make things as normal and less frightening as possible, that’s the ultimate goal.”

The Friends of Jack Foundation raised funds at their 2019 annual gala to establish the new position at the location on Faunce Corner Road after foundation founder Jill Fearons wanted South Coast patients to have the same level of care without having to travel to Boston.

“By adding a child life specialist to the multidisciplinary team, we’re able to prepare patients for procedures, implement coping and behavioral distraction techniques, and offer interventions aimed at addressing a child's emotional and psychological wellbeing,” said Beth Donegan Driscoll, Director of Child Life Services at Boston Children’s.

Three days a week, Cerullo — who held the same position in Boston for three years — helps children develop coping strategies to deal with “the stress and anxiety they might have in a hospital.”

“A lot of it is explaining medical jargon to the kids,” Cerullo noted. “It’s all about helping kids prepare for the experience they’ll have with us.”

Most strategies are dependent on the patient. One of the first steps, she said, is to “meet with patients on their level” and get to know their likes and what makes them nervous. From there, she’ll help teach coping skills such as breathing exercises or provide a slight distraction during a procedure with an iPad or with some toys.

“The way kids express themselves and understand the world is through play,” Cerullo said. “We have to be creative, but it’s fun!” 

So far, the new specialist is enjoying working with patients in Dartmouth, noting that she’s already seen a few familiar faces from her time in Boston. 

She also enjoys dealing with a “wide variety of patients” and helping them deal with getting blood drawn or preparing for an EKG.

“It really keeps me on my toes, I love it,” Cerullo said.

Among her favorite interactions are those with grateful family members.

“A parent recently said to me, ‘can you come home with me?’ ” she said with a laugh. “I just love the little things like when the parents are relieved — it just kind of reaffirms that I am helping and making a difference.”