Julian wasn’t always eager to get out of bed after surgery for a brain tumor. His balance was off, he couldn’t move his left arm that well and he was in the strange surroundings of a hospital room.
But Brittany Bordeaux brought some motivation.
Bordeaux is the recreation gaming specialist in the Child Life department at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. Bordeaux uses video games and virtual reality to break up the boredom of a hospital stay and motivate patients to think and move.
“We used it as a reward to get him to move around the room,” says Julian’s mother, Ana. “I’m not big on video games, but I was 100% on board in this case because it gave him a push in a good direction. I think many children will benefit from this program.”
Bordeaux is part of a growing trend of gaming specialists at children’s hospitals. Often the positions are grant funded and give the hospital another tool to create a better experience for patients who need to be in the hospital short or long term.
“It definitely is not a very traditional career,” she says.
A Gaming Background
Bordeaux says she has been gaming since she was 5 or 6 years old. She remembers her dad rigging the arcade game in the family tire store in St. Petersburg so she could play without inserting quarters.
“I've been pretty much gaming my whole life,” she says. “I've built my own gaming computer, if that tells you anything.”
Still, the idea of building a career around gaming didn’t occur to her. She knew she wanted to work with children and earned a health science degree. She looked toward a career in speech-language pathology.
And then she saw the ad.
“I felt like I would have kicked myself the rest of my life if I didn’t apply for this position,” Bordeaux says. “It’s a really cool job.”
What Does a Gaming Specialist Do?
Bordeaux describes her job in three parts:
- Interacting and gaming with patients (“The best part.”)
- Equipment maintenance and repair
- Advocacy and planning
Bordeaux’s days are varied, but she tends to interact with patients more early in the week when more new patients arrive. Sometimes, she might encounter a teenager who brings a device that needs to be connected to WiFi, so they can engage with friends outside the hospital. Other times, she might teach a younger child a gaming system, playing alongside them or helping them compete with a sibling or cousin. Some patients are unable to read or are non-verbal, so she may help guide them with colors and shapes when possible. Recently, she taught a father and son who had limited gaming experience and watched them bond as they learned to play.
“Typically, I have patient interaction at least three to four times a day, and then I will have one to two play sessions a day,” she says. “Those can last upwards to an hour. It's really something you have to sit down and take time with the family, especially if a child doesn't understand controls.”
Because Johns Hopkins All Children’s treats many patients with challenging medical conditions, Bordeaux often has opportunities to follow up with patients, sometimes over a period of several weeks or months.
“I'm here for normalization in the hospital and distraction and entertainment,” she says. “We'll play games together. Sometimes, I'll go in before they have an intensive procedure, just to check in on them and see if they just want to have some time to relax.”
For the most part, Bordeaux uses commercially available gaming systems and games. She tries to match patients to gaming systems they are familiar with, so it is important for her to keep the consoles and controllers in good condition.
“Having a little bit of know-how about internal hard drives and stuff is important,” she says. “You kind of have to have hardware knowledge but also childhood development knowledge at the same time.”
Bordeaux uses that knowledge for the job’s third phase, advocacy and planning. She has a set of sticky notes next to her desk with ideas and reminders. She is working with colleagues to expand gaming options with the help of grants from the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Foundation.
“Technology is ever changing and more and more integrated into our everyday lives and even more so in our children,” says Heather Bailey, the hospital’s Child Life program manager. “Having a helping professional as a recreation gaming specialist in a pediatric health care setting provides this avenue to meet children where they are and communicate in what is normal to them.
“Brittany has certainly demonstrated how to combine two passions and call a it a profession. Whether Brittany directly interacts with patients or ensures all of our technology resources are updated and optimally operating, she has a great impact to the patients we serve.”
Payoff for Patients
Julian spent about a month and a half in the hospital. He still undergoes outpatient therapy to rebuild his strength and skill. His mother credits Bordeaux with explaining the system well and the gaming program with keeping him active and motivated.
“Julian didn’t have much knowledge, and I have zero,” Ana says, lauding Bordeaux’s enthusiasm and patience. “I like that it encourages him to work and exercise his motor skills, the things his therapist wants him to do.”
She may even get a gaming system for Julian to use at home.