Sweeter dreams for hospitalized children

Spending time in the hospital is hard--especially for children with sickle cell disease, many of whom have to be hospitalized frequently during bouts of acute pain. Children with asthma and other chronic conditions also suffer loneliness and frustration during repeated hospitalizations.

Last spring, a craft project relieved the bad-dream quality of their hospital stay for many children at Kings County Hospital Center. Occupational therapy students from Downstate's College of Health Related Professions helped children in the pediatric unit create "dream catchers," distracting them from loneliness and pain while building new relationships.

One afternoon a week for six weeks, four students would arrive bearing feathers, beads, lanyard, ribbon, wire hoops and other craft supplies. As they worked, they encouraged creativity and conversation among the children. At the end of the day, each child possessed a beautiful and magical object.

Dream catchers, a delicate web of strings formed on a circular hoop, have a long history in Native American tradition, according to Anne Scott, Ph.D., the occupational therapy instructor involved in the project. Mothers in the Ojibwa tribe, she explains, make them for their children at birth. A dream catcher hanging over a child's bed is said to keep bad dreams away from the dreamer, while allowing good dreams to pass through.

Ms. Scott conceived the dream catcher project to give students in her "Groups in Health Care" course an opportunity to provide real help for patients while gaining experience in a challenging hospital environment. Although she no longer teaches occupational therapy at Downstate, Ms. Scott continues to collaborate in the project with Ilyse Koondel, a volunteer who works with Downstate's sickle cell programs.

Carol Unger, head nurse in the pediatric unit at Kings County, described the characteristics of sickle cell disease and helped the students understand the special difficulties faced by all children with chronic illnesses. Following their orientation period, the OT students were given wide leeway to work with the children in whatever ways they thought best.

"It was a challenge for them to introduce themselves to the children and organize the activities in hospital rooms, without the usual tables and tools available in a traditional art room," says Dr. Scott.

The students strove to create an atmosphere in which the children would find the support they needed to express themselves. "Show and tell," in which the kids described what they had done and why, was part of the activity.

"It was a great experience," says Rivka Novick, one of the four OT students. "It was hard at first because the children didn't know us, and they were all of different ages and diagnoses, but once they got going they loved making the dream catchers. It was so great to see their faces light up when we arrived."

Adds Miriam Koenigsberg, "It was amazing to see how kids who were so sick could just join right in anyway, laughing and joking like healthy children. I also noticed that when the kids became friends with one another, things became easier for them." While Ms. Koondel guided the students on site, helping them over any rough spots, Dr. Scott followed the project's progress through the weekly journals the students submitted as part of their course work.

"Initially they worried about whether or not their patients would respond to the activities--it was a first clinical experience for them, and they were confronting the unknown," says Dr. Scott. "But in the end, they were thrilled with the response.".