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Gwen Senio, Child Life Program, UI Children's Hospital

  Gwen Senio
Gwen Senio, director of the Child Life Program in University of Iowa Children's Hospital. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Helping people has always been a priority for Gwen Senio. Through her job as director of the Child Life Program in the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, she realizes that goal each and every day.

Senio and the Child Life Program staff work to normalize hospitalization for children by offering developmental play experiences—group activities and one-on-one sessions that focus on helping children understand illness—and medical play that prepares the children for upcoming procedures. Parents and siblings also benefit from the program’s coping techniques and information offerings.

Senio spoke with fyi about the rewarding aspects of her job, how the Child Life Program has evolved throughout her career, and how the UI Dance Marathon program has provided Child Life with year-round support.

How would you sum up the goals of the Child Life Program?

First and foremost, our young patients are still just children. They have a basic need to play, which is the work of childhood—play is how they learn, grow, and cope with various experiences of life. We are focused on each child’s individual needs, and providing interventions that will support them and their families. We have a model of building a relationship of trust with the children, so they know that we are people who can help them just be kids.

What sorts of activities accomplish these goals?

Socialization is a very important factor for these children. Many of the children we see are chronically ill; they miss a great deal of school, and they miss time with family and friends. Therefore, we offer group activities so kids can be in a social setting. They gain an element of mutual support from this—they might be here for different reasons, but they see that they are not the only kids missing school or friends. And they can have fun together here. It’s interesting to see kids form relationships, as well as family members whose children have similar illnesses.

With medical play, we prepare the children for new routines: taking medicine, dressing changes, and so on. We also spend a lot of time in the treatment rooms during procedures, offering relaxation techniques. Something as simple as distraction can be a most powerful tool as well.

We support other members of the family, too. Sometimes siblings need help coping with the situation. Other times the parents of a “preemie” need help learning how they can play with their newborn or they simply want or need information about their child’s developmental needs. Supporting them is certainly part of the program’s focus.

What influenced you to follow this career path?


A few of my favorite things ...

Food: chocolate

Drink: coffee

Reading: John Irving; Wally Lamb; The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Music: various kinds; Polynesian in particular

Movie: Forrest Gump

TV: medical dramas

Sports teams: whichever teams my kids were on


I always wanted to be in a helping profession. When I was considering my career options, the Vietnam War was near its end, and the Red Cross appealed to me because of the greater good they provide. I worked for the Red Cross in hospital recreation and another children’s hospital in a job called “play therapist” before coming to the University and what would become known as the Child Life Program in 1980.

I’ve been in the profession long enough that Child Life hadn’t been established with that title—my career evolved into this job as the field evolved. I feel lucky and blessed to be where I am.

What makes the job so rewarding?

For me, it’s the relationships you are able to form with the kids, to see that you can make a positive difference during difficult times for them. Families are going through very intimate times here; that they allow us to be a part of that in an effort to help is a real privilege.

The tough part of the job goes hand-in-hand with this: in order to provide compassionate care, you have to invest yourself in each child, and when you do that, the losses are hard. But there are success stories, which is why we keep coming back to work.

UI Dance Marathon’s “Big Event” is just days away. How has that program helped Child Life?

The young people who are involved with Dance Marathon (DM) are participating in such a selfless act. They commit so much time and energy to not only plan the big event but they also give hands-on care and literally make a difference in our care. Not to mention the tremendous amount of money that they raise, which comes back to help us out in lots of ways.

Some years ago, we worked with DM students to provide free massages to our patients’ family members. We identified a need for access to computers—people need to stay in touch with work, kids need them for school, or simply for emotional and social support. We went to DM with a request for laptops, which resulted in a wonderful program for our families.

DM instituted a program called NuDu for kids who are losing their hair due to cancer treatment—the children can get hairpieces, wigs, hats, or salon care through this program. DM also provides comfort kits, which our social workers distribute at the time of diagnosis, that are filled with gas cards, parking vouchers—things that help with incidental expenses that quickly add up. These things help our families year-round.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I like to quilt—I don’t get much of it done, but I claim that as a hobby! I also like to read, and I enjoy music. My husband, who grew up in Samoa, and I discovered when we first met that we had a common interest in singing. He grew up harmonizing, so we found that we can sing well together! We are asked to perform Polynesian programs.

If you could have another job, even if just for a day, what would you want to do?

Foreign correspondent, so I could travel! I love learning about new cultures and visiting different places.

by Christopher Clair

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