I do not remember his name, but I do remember the look in his eyes and his story. A story about hospitalizations and assumptions. Let me call him Tom, that’s easier to talk about. Tom visited me in my office in Elst, during the time I was running my hand puppet webshop there. His mother, on the recommendation of a friend, had called me. I had gotten her child to talk, maybe I could succeed with Tom too.
Tom had been in a serious accident and had to return to the hospital every so often to have the next operation. Another one was scheduled soon, but Tom didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t want to go to the hospital anymore, he didn’t do it, he was angry. His parents didn’t get clear why Tom was suddenly so angry and explained it as “something must have happened between him and the doctor Tom doesn’t want to tell us, he’s probably afraid of the doctor. This surgery was really necessary, his life would be easier after this, but forcing Tom was not an option, so the question to me was whether I perhaps could get clear what was going on in his head and what he needed most.
I am not a child coach or play therapist. I am an experience expert and teacher who understands how trauma works, who communicates primarily through a hand puppet and thinks from low-threshold and inviting contact. The child SHOULD not tell me anything; that is not my purpose. Above all, I want the child to feel safe and relaxed, I am looking to connect and get to know a child. And to break the ice, I often look for a topic that makes a child very happy.
In Tom’s case, those were dinosaurs. He could list a whole string of names, and when JaNee (my puppet) asked what they looked like, that she knew what a triceratops looked like because we also sold them in the store, but didn’t know the others, Tom pulled a couple of his plastic dinos out of his bag. This was the tyrannosaurus, or t-rex, that was the brontosaurus, that was the stegosaurus, well the triceratops so she already knew those. By now we were sitting on the floor and JaNee wanted to know all sorts of things about the dinos, which Tom liked best, what he liked about them, what he did with the dinos, whether he could take them to school too and where else he took them.
His mother (his parents were always there) said Tom also took them when he had to go to the hospital. JaNee asked him why he was visiting the hospital? Tom’s face tightened. He had to go to the doctor, he said, the doctor was going to make him better. Are you sick then? JaNee asked. Tom nodded YES.
But then it’s great when the doctor makes you better, isn’t it? Tom shook his head, no, it wasn’t great.
Isn’t the doctor a nice man, JaNee wanted to know. The doctor was very nice, Tom said, but he found the hospital scary.
I said I am an expert by experience, I spent a lot of time in the hospital as a child and found them scary just like Tom, with me it wasn’t because of the doctor either. The doctor was fine, what has been terrifying for me is the fact that I had to wait a very long time in the operating room before I could have surgery. An emergency surgery had intervened, and I had had to wait. I had no idea what to expect and there was no one around that I could ask anything of, I was very scared and felt very abandoned. In my experience, it took hours. Whether it was, I don’t know. This is how I remember it.
In Tom’s case, it turned out it wasn’t about the doctor or the surgery. He had woken up in a dark room during his last hospitalization and had not known where he was. He could not get out of bed on his own and had panicked.
“You know what I find scary in the hospital?” he said to JaNee, “that the lights suddenly goes out, and then it’s completely dark, that you can’t see where you are then, then I’m very scared.
JaNee understood that, of course; she would find that very scary, too. Would he be less afraid if his dinosaurs were with him, or if the nurse left the light on, or if he took his nightlight with him? Tom thought that would help a little, he could try that.
Tom’s parents were surprised and relieved; they had always thought Tom was afraid of the doctor and had not thought for a moment that the darkness of the room had scared Tom so much. He had mentioned it, but they had not seen it as the real reason.
And yet that was what was going on, Tom didn’t feel safe, and his parents could help him by asking if the light in the room could stay on at night, by staying with him and making sure it would never be completely dark in that room.
Going to the hospital would never really be fun, but it could be made more bearable and safer. Tom’s parents knew what they had to do.
This story is not about children in hospitals, but about assumptions that can blind you to other options. I regularly see assumptions about children come along in practice, and have been guilty of them myself as an educator.
Through the conversations my puppet had with children, I often found that I wasn’t probing enough, that I was full of assumptions and judgments and that reality was different than I thought. The puppet helped me to become a better educator, and that is something I am grateful for every day.
Want to know more about that or learn this yourself? Please send me an email: email@example.com, I’d be happy to help.