If you visit Myra Fox, the director of Child Life Services, in her office in the basement of the Wolbach building, you'll see a room that chronicles a 44-year career that helped bring the field of Child Life into prominence and changed Children's Hospital Boston in fundamental ways. The walls are covered with photos and awards. The floor is dotted with boxes filled with stuffed animals and other toys that she gives to patients, parents and staff alike. And her desk is covered with hand-drawn thank-you notes from some of the tens of thousands of families who have had their lives touched in some way by this singular woman.
Come July, all of those items will be packed away as Fox begins a much-earned retirement, but the impact she has had on this hospital, its staff and the families who come here for care will last forever.
The pediatric health care environment that existed when Fox started at Children's in 1964 would be unrecognizable to us today. Children were often displayed, small and shivering, in front of an auditorium filled with curious doctors wanting to learn about that child's particular illness. Visiting hours were limited and parents weren't allowed to stay overnight at the hospital. And organized activities to help children keep their minds off their illness and treatment were not part of the care plan.
But through perseverance and a strength of personality that anyone who knows her will attest to, Fox has helped change all of that and more. And she did all of it by focusing on a single, simple word: play. It's the single most important ingredient in her recipe for bridging the gap between home and the hospital and has given her the title she is most proud of: the Play Lady. "Play is how children learn, explore and communicate," she says. "I've always believed that it shouldn't stop when children are in the hospital."
The field of Child Life started with simple types of play; Fox put card tables between patients' beds in the 1960s so they could play games together. But it's now something you can get a Master's degree in and involves expertise in developmental play and use of distraction techniques during procedures. In 1964, there were five play ladies at Children's, but today, there are 30 Child Life Specialists on staff—one on every inpatient unit and in outpatient settings like the Emergency Department and Radiology—each of whom is educated in the field of child development and is responsible for enhancing a patient's emotional, social and cognitive growth during a hospital stay.
Much of their work takes place in the playrooms on every inpatient unit. Fox was instrumental in creating them as safe havens where no medical treatments or procedures are allowed because she feels that children had to have a place they could go where they knew they'd experience nothing medical. "Doctors
and nurses aren't banned from playrooms," she says. "But they can't take a child's blood or remove a bandage or do anything else related to the child's care while they're in there."
Another area where Fox has played a big role is in Child Life's connection to nursing. Eileen Sporing, MSN, RN, CNAA, BC, senior vice president of Patient Care Operations and chief nursing officer, has worked with Fox for nearly two decades and has seen the impact she's had not only on patients, but also on her fellow nurses. "Myra has led her group through all the changes this hospital has gone through with incredible good humor and grace, while always making sure the rest of us are doing the right thing for the children."
So while Sporing, Susan Shaw, MS, RN, director of Clinical Operations, and a group of other senior staff search for someone to fill Fox's sizable shoes (she also directs Volunteer Services, the Big Apple Circus Clown Care unit, the art and music therapy programs and the hospital tutoring program), Fox herself looks around her office and relives more than four decades of caring and advocating for patients, and she can answer a question that many have asked her over the years: Do you have kids of your own?
"I don't," she says. "But I think of every patient I've met here as my child. We weren't substitutes for their parents, but we could comfort and support them through procedures and help with the separation from their homes and families. I've learned so much from them. They are the most irresistible, adorable and bravest kids in the world."
Click here to view video interviews of Myra Fox speaking on the field of child life and her experience as a pioneering play lady.
Join the hospital-wide celebration of Myra fox's retirement on May 29, from 2 to 4 pm in the Prouty Garden. The celebration will move to the Patient Entertainment Center if