Alumni ProfileJill Van Stright '07
Helping sick kids be kids

Jill Van Stright ’07 doesn’t want to be called a surrogate parent. That’s the term that comes to mind, though, when she describes her work at Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

From May 2007 to June 2008, Van Stright held one of three fellowships in the Josh Cares program, a nonprofit charity that operates out of the hospital’s Child Life department. Like any of the hospital’s 40 child-life specialists, Van Stright and the two other fellows spent their days cuddling, comforting and playing with children, as well as supporting them through medical procedures. The children under their care, however, differed in one important respect: they often had no family members with them.

Preston was 10 months old when Van Stright arrived at Cincinnati Children’s. Born with a rare abdominal/digestive condition, he spent his days in a crib waiting for a bowel, liver and pancreas transplant—alone, was it not for Van Stright. His single mother, an hour away in Dayton, Ohio, had three other children to care for. Every day Van Stright played with and supported Preston. She remembers the day he discovered himself in a mirror she’d propped in his crib. “He reached out, grabbed the mirror and hugged it!” she said.

She was there the day Michelle, another transplant hopeful, started to crawl, then, later, to stand. Without Van Stright she would have been confined to her crib.

Van Stright wrote about Preston’s and Michelle’s “firsts” in a journal. She took pictures and sent them to their families.

“I in no way wanted to be a replacement for their mothers,” Van Stright said. “I wanted to be a connection between the children and their families.”

The Josh Cares program is the only one of its kind in the country, funded after a Cincinnati family’s 10-year-old son died in the hospital of a head injury. They saw how many children—15 percent of intensive care patients—at the hospital have to endure medical trauma alone. Josh Cares fellows, such as Van Stright, give those children daily sustained attention, more attention than a regular child-life specialist can offer any single child.

“What I loved most was giving kids the chance just to be kids in a situation that’s so restricted,” Van Stright said, “like finger painting in a place where kids aren’t supposed to get messy.”

Harder was helping kids through needles and other painful procedures. Hardest of all was seeing their suffering end in death. Though he successfully received his transplant, in April, Preston died.

“There are days when I say to God, ‘This isn’t fair!’” Van Stright admitted. “I don’t know that I’ll ever understand it, but I do know I’ve made a difference in the lives these kids have had.”

The good days far outnumber the bad days, Van Stright added. Michelle is now out of the hospital after her transplant and doing well.

And Van Stright, now that her Josh Cares fellowship has ended, is in Kansas City, Mo., where she’s a child-life specialist at Children’s Mercy Hospital. There she works with both children who have family present and those who don’t. At root, it’s the same kind of work.

“I’m not always able to say directly, ‘You’re loved by God,’” Van Stright said. “So I put my beliefs in my actions, being as caring and supportive and compassionate as I can be.”