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The new child-friendly burn clinic room.

Upstate burn clinic gets child-friendly exam room makeover and child life specialist

The youngest patients who come through Upstate University Hospital’s burn clinic will now feel a little more at ease thanks to a newly decorated, child-friendly exam room and a new child life specialist.

Upstate’s Burn Clinic is an outpatient facility located at the downtown campus that handles 1,500 visits a year, including about 250 pediatric patients. Visits to the burn clinic often involve dressing changes and other treatments for burns and scalds that can be painful, especially for a child.

To make the experience less anxiety-inducing, burn clinic staff worked with the Upstate Foundation to create a more child-friendly environment. Using a $5,000 grant from the foundation, one of the eight clinic exam rooms was turned into an underwater landscape complete with a giant sea turtle on the wall and ceiling tiles painted to look like water. The bright, colorful space can be a welcome alternative to a sterile white room, explained Certified Child Life Specialist Allison C. Della Penna, BS, CCLS, who started working at the clinic in November.

“Our job is to just help get them through it and when they’re done being able to re-engage them in something that they enjoy doing,” said Della Penna, who spent two years working in Upstate’s pediatric emergency department before joining the burn clinic.

Della Penna meets with her patients at the very start of their visit to learn more about the child’s interests and comfort level, she said. Some children want to watch what the nurse or doctor is doing while others want to be fully distracted. She uses music, books, toys, bubbles and conversation to distract and entertain the pediatric patients, which can range in age from babies to adolescents.

“I want to find out what makes them feel the most calm,” she said. “Do they want to look and watch or would that make them more upset?”

Burn Program Manager Tamara Roberts, MSN, RN, said Della Penna has already added several helpful services to the clinic. She cited a new burn dictionary to help children and families understand more medical terminology and the Beads of Courage program, which gives pediatric patients a new bead each time they undergo a new treatment or have a clinic visit.

“Having her here really improves the patient experience and the family’s experience,” Roberts said. “It can be traumatizing for a parent to have to watch their child go through something. Allison continues to come up with creative and innovative ideas to make kids more compliant with changing their dressings so the entire experience is easier.”

Now through Feb. 13 is National Burn Awareness Week – a time to shed light on burn and scald dangers for adults and children. The Clark Burn Center and clinic saw an increase in the number of scald injuries in 2020 compared to previous years, Roberts said, as more people were cooking and home in general because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Many burn injuries require multiple visits to the clinic, Roberts said, making it all the more important for a pediatric patient to not be scared about visiting.

“I’ve come to really rely on the child life specialist for inpatient and outpatient care,” said Burn Center Medical Director Jessica Summers, MD. “I can’t say enough about how much their help is needed and valued because they can put the kids at ease and make them more comfortable.”

Della Penna said working in the burn clinic allows her to see patients over longer periods of time and help them on their healing journey.

“I love seeing kids be able to get through something that was really hard,” Della Penna said. “I love seeing them be so proud of themselves and seeing the families so shocked at how well they did. I think that’s the biggest piece that keeps me coming back. I love it.”

Caption: Certified Child Life Specialist Allison C. Della Penna, BS, CCLS, sits in the newly renovated, child-friendly room in the Upstate burn clinic.