Tiny Hearts, Big Impact: Child Life in the PCICU

A girl holds a child

The halls of a hospital can be intimidating for young patients facing the unknown. One such patient, a young girl, is brought into a room to receive a CT scan from a technician she’s unfamiliar with. As the machine begins to hum, she feels anxiety, unsure of what her experience is going to be like. Questions race through her mind as the technician applies her IV, but her fear takes over as she tries to avoid going through with the CT scan.

The memory is a vivid reality for UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital Child Life specialist, Sarah Meurer. Although a career in the medical field wasn’t initially on her mind prior to college, her CT scan experience became a pivotal factor in becoming a Child Life specialist.

Despite multiple family members in the medical field, and initially pursuing nursing perquisites, the direct medical route didn’t resonate with Meurer.

“I love medicine, anatomy, and the way the body works, but I don’t want to be the one to do medicine,” Meurer said. “I wanted to teach it, and when I found Child Life, it was the best of both worlds.”

Born and raised in Gainesville, Fla., Meurer discovered Child Life after graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in Family, Youth and Community Sciences. Her journey led her west to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, where she earned her Child Life specialist certification before securing a full-time role at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, Kan.

The onset of COVID-19, however, altered her trajectory.

“I was able to work in the beginning of the pandemic and did a lot of education for children of families who had family members pass or who had life-altering changes. Then my hours got cut back and then my position was completely taken away,” Meurer said.

Overnight, life took Meurer from being a child life specialist in a pediatric ER and trauma unit to answering calls at the front desk of a wound care clinic overnight.

Grateful for the opportunity at the wound care clinic, Meurer found parallels between working with geriatric patients and her previous experiences with pediatric care. But, despite the fulfilling aspects, she longed to resume her role in Child Life and return home.

Meanwhile at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, a vacancy emerged when a long-time Child Life specialist in the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Unit retired in 2021, providing Meurer the chance to return to her roots.

A heart with a footprint in it

Nurse Manager, Joshua Campbell, B.S.N., R.N., CCRN, initially apprehensive about welcoming a new member to a role held by one person for many years, quickly became a supporter of Meurer’s capabilities.

“It was not very long after she had started that I went to Amy Wegner, director of Child Life at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, and told her ‘She’s a part of our team, don’t think about placing her anywhere else,’ Campbell said. 

Meurer wasted no time making an impact in the PCICU. When first arriving on the unit, she noticed the practice of only referring to babies by their mother’s name. Wanting to give the babies their autonomy, she implemented a change by creating name tags for their bassinets, acknowledging each infant by the name given by their parents.

While dedicating so much of herself to the PCICU, Muerer’s heart extends well-beyond the unit. A champion for charitable support, she actively participates in fundraising efforts for UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital and Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Her passion stems from witnessing first-hand the challenges that families affected by congenital heart disease face.

“Congenital heart disease affects about 1 in 100 births and there is no cure,” Meurer said. “This is a population that does not get talked about a lot and remains unknown unless you are somehow affected by it. That drives me because I see families and CHD children day-to-day, living their lives, adapting to challenges. They’re missing holidays, school events, life events. These families give me the honor of being there with them at the highs and lows of life, and I want to give back to them.”

Spending so much time around families impacted by CHD has allowed Meurer to grow close to them and form personal connections. This closeness helps her capture the essence of her job: legacy building. Often confronted with delivering heartbreaking news to families, she takes it upon herself to provide moments of joy. Even in the face of loss, she ensures that families have lasting memories by providing footprints, a tangible remembrance of their child’s time at the hospital.

“I had a patient who never made it home, but their mom let me know that their footprints from their entire life filled the home, and that is why it is an honor to do my job and why I will continue to celebrate every day I get with these babies and kiddos,” Meurer said.

A decoration of footprints made to look like flowers

Meurer continues to invest her heart into her patients and their families, helping to explain what is happening to their bodies and giving them expectations. Going through those steps, Meurer notes, helps children cope and it is amazing how well they do cope. 

“The hospital does not have to be a scary place and I am thankful that I can work alongside an amazing population of kiddos and siblings to help make it less scary.”

Donations to Children’s Miracle Network directly help Sarah Meurer and her initiatives in the PCICU. Funded through Children’s Miracle Network, Child Life specialists at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital remain steadfast in their commitment to helping children and families with the stress and anxiety of hospitalization and are grateful for the donors and supporters of CMN who are helping change kids’ health.