how a doll helps kids beat MRI fears

How a Doll Helps Kids Beat MRI Fears

Katie was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) when she was only two years old. The diagnosis was naturally troubling to Sally, Katie’s mother, because of the implications for her daughter’s quality of life – but she also wondered how they would get through the years of radiologic testing that were to follow.

Like many young children, Katie was extremely anxious about visiting the hospital, and she was especially afraid of needles. Also like many young children, Katie would require sedation in order to undergo an MRI, meaning an encounter with a needle each time.

Katie receives care close to home

Sally chose to have Katie tested and treated by the doctors at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), despite living an hour’s drive away in Atlantic County, New Jersey. While this meant she would be getting the best possible care for Katie, it also meant hours of travel and long appointments with a hungry, frightened toddler (as Katie would need to have fasted for at least six hours before each sedation).

Recently, through a unique partnership, Virtua began offering pediatric diagnostic imaging services with CHOP specialists at the Virtua Health and Wellness Center in Voorhees, which is much closer to the Carters’ home. This makes what was once a difficult trip and experience a much easier one.

Child-life specialists help ease fears

Those early appointments were extremely trying for both mother and child. “Not letting her eat anything was hard enough,” says Sally. “But Katie’s anxiety was also really overwhelming in those days. She’d be hysterical with fear about the IV, and then after the procedure she’d often awaken from the anesthesia frantic and vomiting.”

After those early traumatic experiences, CHOP’s child-life specialists got involved with Katie’s care. The child-life department exists to minimize stress and help children and their families cope positively during testing and treatment.

“They were wonderful with Katie,” recalls Sally. “They brought in coloring books and bubbles when she was smaller, all sorts of things to keep her distracted. As she got older, they would bring her a doll – and she was really into dolls – and they let her insert her own play IV into the doll.” They’d explain the procedure in kind, soothing words that were age-appropriate. They also introduced her to CHOP’s mock MRI scanner, which allowed Katie to “practice” and talk her way through a simulated MRI session.

The doll made all the difference

Over time, these interventions made all the difference. “The dolls were probably the biggest deal for her,” says Sally. “The more control she had, the better she felt. The fact that she was able to mimic the IV procedure was hugely helpful for her.”

When she was 8 years old, Katie hit a milestone: Her first MRI without sedation. “We turned a corner,” says Sally. “She still had to have the IV, just in case she ended up needing anesthesia, but she worked with her doll beforehand, and she felt good, and she made it through.”

Katie today

Today, Katie is 11, a sweet, talkative girl who’s coping with her diagnosis and feeling better than ever. “When I was 2, I used to freak out. I couldn’t deal with being awake and trying to stare up at the machine and be still,” she says. “But then I got older, and [child life] helped to calm me down, and they brought in dolls and showed me demonstrations. They even let me keep one doll and draw on it.” Now, the latest technology has given her even more options for distraction during her scans. “I get to watch TV, or bring in a movie I like. I actually don’t really mind it anymore.”

“I feel so much better knowing that she’s happy going in, AND happy coming out,” says Sally. “I remember the first time I realized she was actually looking forward to interacting with child life, excited to see their ‘bag of tricks’...We’ve come a long way.”

Katie had her first radiology appointment at CHOP at Virtua in Voorhees this past February, and received good news: She’s in remission, and currently pain-free.

In the time that’s passed since Katie’s initial diagnosis, Sally has gone from a believer in the value of child life to a vocal advocate for CHOP’s radiology department, and now CHOP at Virtua. “My girlfriend’s daughter recently got injured, and she needed a scan. And sure, I know you can go have these kinds of tests done at any number of places – but this is just such a great program and such a good choice for children. I told her I wouldn’t waste my time going anywhere else.”

Updated December 29, 2017