Sister Carla Lusch, SSND, carefully selected a toy steering wheel and brightly colored pop-up toy from the shelves of an activity closet at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. A 22-month-old boy needed some fun.
Sister Carla added the toys to her four-tiered rolling cart, filled with books, art supplies, dolls and more, and wheeled it down the hallway to the patient’s room. The young boy was asleep, but “Mom was very happy to have some toys” for when he woke up, Sister Carla reported.
Sister Carla volunteers twice weekly with child life services at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. She engages with children in the playroom and visits patients who can’t leave their rooms, bringing them toys and activities and offering her presence to families.
She is among hundreds of volunteers offering service across several departments at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. In 2022, 304 volunteers served 20,537 hours at the hospital.
After many years as a teacher, administrator and superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas, Sister Carla became a certified child life specialist.
“I had never thought about working in a hospital,” Sister Carla said. “I had a sister who trained as a nurse, and I thought blood, IV pokes, that’s not for me. But I thought, let me go see what a child life specialist does.”
She took a year to volunteer at a children’s hospital in Texas. Finding it to be a good fit, she spent the next two years taking courses and completing an internship and practicum to become a certified child life specialist. She worked in a Texas hospital for about 10 years before retiring in 2022 and moving back to St. Louis, where she was born and raised.
From her years of experience, she knows how important the child life team is to the overall well-being of children and their families during a hospital stay.
“For kids, play is their normal,” Sister Carla said. “When they come in here, a hospital can be a scary and sterile place. And people are coming in with yellow gowns and poking you. The child life specialists help with some of that. As volunteers, we have the ability to support the child life specialist and nurses by saying, ‘OK, let us go in and sit with that child and just read to the child, or play with the child, or bring the child in here (to the playroom), and help them be a normal child for at least part of their day.’”
As an education administrator, Sister Carla was used to handing out guidelines and policies, she said. But as a child life specialist, and now volunteer, she’s “learned to listen to people more. In this setting, it’s being the one who accompanies somebody, rather than being the person who has all the answers for them,” she said.
She’s also learned to be flexible, since her schedule looks different every shift depending on when patients have time for a visit to the playroom or which families need some extra support that day. “I say in the morning, ‘OK, God, what is it that You want today? You lead me. Holy Spirit, send me where You need me. Help me to know what to say when I run into these situations,’” she said.
On some days, that means watching trucks out of the wide windows of the playroom with a 3-year-old, then heading to a room to provide relief to a parent who has been sitting by their child’s bedside day in and day out, giving them time to step out and take a walk or have a meal. Sister Carla and the other Cardinal Glennon volunteers are part of SSM Health’s mission: “Through our exceptional health care services, we reveal the healing presence of God.”
“My focus is compassion, being able to meet people where they are. There’s a lot of diversity here in patient population, so it’s an openness to receiving each child, each family, whatever their needs are,” she said. Sometimes simply introducing herself as a religious sister opens up conversations about God, or “they’ll ask for prayers, and I say, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’”
Family and friends have asked her how she handles working in a hospital with children and families who are hurting and suffering.
“You have to stop and think, God has given me the graces to accompany that child, accompany that parent, to say, ‘how can I help make your day brighter, even for a little while?’” she said. “It doesn’t make me hurt any less for the child I know is chronically ill, or the parent who has to be the sole caregiver for that child. But knowing that you’ve made a positive impact on their day, that’s what makes it for me.”
Volunteering at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital
Volunteers are asked to commit to a weekly three-hour shift on the same day and time each week. Most opportunities are Monday-Friday during daytime hours, and volunteers must over age 18. Volunteers serve at the front desk, in the gift shop, with the child life team, same-day surgery, in the Ronald McDonald Family Room and with therapy teams, supporting teams as well as patients and families on several floors and units. Becoming a volunteer can take a little bit of time, and the process requires current immunization records, background checks and in-person orientations and training.
For more information or to complete an online volunteer application, the first step in the process, visit: www.ssmhealth.com/cardinal-glennon/resources/volunteer/volunteering-at-the-hospital