Child life specialist Maggie Goldbach

Child life specialist Maggie Goldbach talks with Azariah Roper, age 10, of Hays, in the pediatrics wing at St. Vincent Healthcare on Tuesday. Goldbach is the hospital's first child life specialist and will work with kids and families to help ease the stress of being in the hospital. 

Maggie Goldbach remembers heading to the doctor as a child for a routine visit and being freaked out about what could happen. 

"I was a kiddo that always had a hard time going to the doctor," she said. 

At this particular visit, a nurse sat down with her while she waited, talking to her and really connecting with her and allaying her fears. It was a transformative moment for Goldbach. 

It also set her on her current career path. Goldbach is St. Vincent Healthcare's new child life specialist, the first for the hospital. 

A child life specialist works to help children and their families navigate the emotional and physical challenges associated with serious medical procedures and hospital stays. 

Goldbach will meet and plan with families to find ways to make their child's hospital stay the least stressful possible. That ranges from the impossibly difficult, like providing support for parents when their child dies, to the more low-key of helping siblings better understand why their brother or sister is in pain. 

"My job is to help develop a solid coping plan," Goldbach said. 

The creation of a child life specialist position at St. Vincent came through the hospital's new partnership with Intermountain Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City. 

Primary employs a number of child life specialists. By observing the program in Salt Lake, officials at St. Vincent hope to take the best practices from Primary Children's and employ them here.

"It helps round out our pediatrics program as a whole," said Dustin Strandell, director of the pediatric service line at St. Vincent. "It's the standard now."

By starting small, St. Vincent can experiment a bit and find out what works well and what doesn't work at all. 

"That's how any child life program grows," Goldbach said. 

Over the next three to five years, the hospital hopes to grow the program into a robust service that will help children and families throughout the hospital. 

Sammy Twito, the nursing manager for the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit, is often interacting with parents and family in stressful circumstances. She sees the immediate benefit a child life specialist can bring to bear at St. Vincent. 

"The hospital is never where anyone wants to end up," she said. "But if you can ease that stress you can really help. It's a blessing."

Not everyone can do the job. 

"It's an art being able to do it right," Twito said. 

When Goldbach was in college, she had initially looked at going into physical therapy. But walking around a career fair, she ended up talking at length to recruiter for a child life specialist program and something clicked. 

"I knew that's what I was meant to do," she said.

As the hospital's first and, for right now, only child life specialist, she figures she'll stay plenty busy.

"Maggie will be everywhere," Strandell said with a laugh.  

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.