“I just fell in love with the work.”

In the third installment of our Child Life Month series, we take a look back at the career of a seasoned employee at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. Sheila Brunner, child life specialist of more than 25 years, tells us about her role and what keeps her coming back.

Sheila Brunner

Brunner, child life specialist at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health Specialty Services Sunnyvale, demonstrates a urological procedure with the aid of miniature medical equipment and an anatomically correct doll.

A gold ROSE award winner and child life specialist with a lot of spunk, Sheila Brunner is often seen making her way around Stanford Medicine Children’s Health Specialty Services Sunnyvale that opened its doors last June–her signature blue marbled suitcase in tow. While new to the outpatient clinic arena, Brunner is no stranger to the halls of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. “I just had my 25th anniversary last year,” Brunner says.

She has devoted her life to serving the needs of children at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, and now at Sunnyvale Specialty Services, her primary focus has been to help prepare and support patients and families for procedures in radiology, urology, and at the lab. It’s been a long and fulfilling career, but Brunner didn’t begin her journey in child life services. Not at first.

Early Years

After graduating from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo with a degree in Recreation Administration, Brunner landed a recreation therapy internship at Boston Children’s Hospital in the Child and Family Life Department.

“I didn’t know what child life was,” says Brunner. “I was the only rec therapist, and the child life people didn’t know what rec therapy was, so it was a learning experience for all of us.”

Child and family life services uses age-appropriate education, preparation, and supportive activities to minimize stress and help children and their families cope positively with their healthcare experience. Medical procedures can be confusing and frightening for children, and child life specialists use tools such as miniature medical play equipment and dolls to educate them about what they can expect.

Following her internship, Brunner returned to California and applied for a relief position as a child life specialist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. She joined the hospital temporarily while covering for an employee who was on leave, but the role soon blossomed into much more.

“Early on in my career, I thought I’d probably be here for only five years. Everybody says, you know, you’ve got to have a five year plan, but I just fell in love with the work.”

What Keeps Her Coming Back

Brunner acknowledges the mentorship of Ellen VanderWilt, a colleague who retired two years ago, for teaching her the child life role in preparing patients and families for procedures and surgeries.  Colette Case, a former director, also empowered Brunner throughout her career.

“Over the past 25 years, I’ve been really fortunate to be able to work in many of the areas within the hospital. I worked in the surgery center, in the ICUs, with the transplant units–kidney, liver, heart, and lung–the general surgery unit, general medicine, hematology, and oncology. Before moving over to Sunnyvale, I worked extensively with the vascular access team throughout the hospital. I’ve just been really fortunate that I was able to say ‘Okay, I’m ready for a change, I want to increase my knowledge base and skills and not get stuck in a rut,’ and that’s been what’s kept me here.”

A force for good, Brunner is now at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health Services Sunnyvale, helping children prepare for ultrasounds and urological procedures. Her blue marbled suitcase holds toys for distraction, along with miniature medical equipment and anatomically correct dolls—tools she uses to explain to children what they can expect in upcoming procedures.

Brunner specifically helps children prepare for voiding cystourethrograms (VCUGs), an invasive procedure that uses x-rays and insertion of a urinary catheter to determine whether a child has reflux—a condition where urine goes backwards up the ureters into the kidneys, which can lead to infection and damage if gone untreated.

“I really have a new insight as to what kids have to go through in the clinic setting,” says Brunner. “I’ve come to the realization that a child life specialist’s skills are really welcomed, valuable, and utilized in the outpatient setting.”

Thanks to Brunner’s dedication and passion in her work over the years, patients visiting Stanford Medicine Children’s Health have been calmly guided through thousands of procedures. If the past is any indication, children will be able to depend on her for many more years to come.


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