The play area in the pediatric infusion center is buzzing with activity. Kids are building, coloring, reading and, most importantly, laughing. Not just patients, but parents and siblings, too. The play area isn’t just a haphazard jumble of donated toys and books, it’s a space specially designed by the cancer center’s resident child life specialist and expert on fun, Ellen Meuchel.

Ellen Meuchel

“I tell people what I do and where I work, and they say to me, ‘I could never do that, it’s so depressing, blah, blah, blah…’ ” Meuchel (formerly Sereno) said. “It doesn’t have to be. Kids leave after appointments on a regular basis saying ‘that was really fun!’”

As a child life specialist Meuchel’s main focus is addressing mental health issues that might otherwise be neglected during a child’s treatment. Cancer is a foreign and very scary concept that’s difficult to understand for children. But in a way, that makes her job a little easier.

“With kids, everything is new for them, it’s all part of growing up,” Meuchel said. “This is advantageous because it can just be another new thing they learn about. Adults have their own preconceptions and experiences, so in some way kids cope better or learn to cope faster.”

To help with this process, she engages patients with information they’ll understand. For example, she often makes “blood soup”— corn syrup plasma and skittle blood cells mix together to form a sticky, gooey mess that mimics what healthy blood looks like. Then they make one to demonstrate what blood in someone with leukemia looks like to help them understand what’s going on inside their bodies.

“We need to think outside the box and use tools they can relate to,” Meuchel said. “It’s about creating a concrete, understandable image.”

A day in the life

Meuchel’s typical day starts with morning rounds, checking up on children coming to their appointments and assisting new or young patients with the more painful parts of their treatment such as port accesses for chemotherapy and blood draws. Then she takes care of the day’s celebrations, which may include birthdays, final chemotherapy appointments and other significant dates. Kids can expect to be feted with decorations, gifts and, on final appointments, a quilt donated by Sacramento area quilt maker Gwen Maule.

She’s also responsible for reaching out to other child life specialists dealing with pediatric cancer center patients admitted to the hospital, as well as accepting donations given to the pediatric oncology program. In this respect, she works closely with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, a non-profit that provides hospitals with funds for research, equipment, patient care and programs. UC Davis Children’s Hospital is the local Children’s Miracle Network hospital.

Building her career

Meuchel first got interested in the child life field as a volunteer in the medical center playrooms during her senior year of college. From there, she landed an internship, fellowship and then full-time job with the UC Davis Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy program. She paused to get her master’s degree in behavioral health at the University of San Francisco and returned to Davis in 2015.

Meuchal said working with cancer patients is especially rewarding.

“I love it because you develop a strong relationship with the patients and families,” she said. “You’re invited to walk this tough journey with them.”

She likes to say her job is to “play all day.” Through that, she gets kids to relax during a difficult time, which she says helps take some of the burden off of their parents.

But there are difficulties, too.

“I think losing patients is considerably harder than I anticipated,” Meuchel said. “I worked in the ICU and have dealt with death. It’s easier when your job is regimented and you don’t have a relationship with the patient. Here, you’re invited into this child’s world and what’s essentially the family’s worst nightmare.”

When Meuchel first started working with Child Life, the program had only five members. Now, that number has tripled.  Meuchel wants to take the cancer center’s Child Life program to even loftier heights.