Four-hour blood transfusions used to tax 14-year-old Akayllah McEwan’s mind as much as her body. While the healthy red blood cells pumped into her body treated her sickle cell disease, she struggled with the scourge of adolescence: boredom.
Then Child Life Specialist Sammy Sherman taught Akayllah to make “Blood Soup,” mixing water, red food coloring, marshmallows, red hot candies and toffees in mason jars to illustrate sickle cell disease’s effect on a cellular level and what the transfusions do to help her.
“I wanted to eat the food,” Akayllah giggled, then acknowledged, “I always kind of understood why I needed the transfusions. Sammy made it specific for me.”
Supporting patients and their families
At Cohen Children’s Medical Center, Sammy is one of two certified child life specialists in the hematology-oncology division who accompany kids from diagnosis through treatment. Since 2014, her position has been funded by a generous gift from Delta Air Lines.
Over the past decade, Delta has contributed more than $2 million to Cohen Children’s Medical Center. “Child Life is one of the programs not covered by health insurance,” explained Tricia Rumola, Delta Air Lines’ general manager of Community Engagement. “We hope our support will help families and patients have a sense of comfort going through an incredibly difficult time in their lives.”
Helping kids overcome fear and embrace hope
Delta’s sponsorship of Sammy’s position helps kids overcome fears and anxieties and learn to cope with challenging medical experiences. “My goal is to empower patients and families,” said Sammy, who holds a master’s degree in child life.
She uses Surgi Dolls and makes treatments more relateable to patients by helping them understand hospital equipment through therapeutic activities. Sammy also supports kids when they receive a terminal diagnosis, giving them space to enjoy time with their family, and feel like kids who happen to be sick — not sick kids.
“Sammy has an extraordinary ability to connect with children,” said Cynthia Rodriguez, Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Program director. “While they may think they are just having fun with Sammy, she is undoubtedly teaching them, supporting them, and helping them to learn how to navigate their journey successfully.”
Sammy also connects patients with each other since they have limited opportunities to socialize with other kids. She started a monthly newsletter where they can submit jokes, stories and artwork to express themselves.
“Sammy is my go-to person at the hospital,” said Akayllah. “She takes my mind off of the transfusion and makes the hospital a normal area where I can be myself.”
“Sammy is really doing the work that is her life’s calling,” said Tricia. “Delta couldn’t be prouder to have our name connected to Sammy and the work she is doing.”