Senior Child Life Specialist Marilyn Gifford leaves behind a legacy as she retires after 29 years at Mass General Hospital for Children.
Gifford Says Goodbye
A Quiet Leader Begins a New Chapter
Marilyn Gifford, center, with members of the Child Life Team.
In the back of the playroom on one of MGHfC’s inpatient floors, tucked away in a closet-sized office covered with kids’ drawings, Marilyn Gifford is quietly packing up. Rather than an elaborate retirement party with colleagues to send her off, she prefers this way of exiting – understated and graceful. In a way, her transition to retirement reflects her 29 years at Mass General, a career imbued with humility and quiet leadership. But despite her silent parting, her legacy echoes a volume that will be heard for years.
Gifford, a now former Senior Child Life Specialist at MGHfC, has walked the hospital’s halls through the transformation of the Child Life Team, formerly known as “Recreation Therapy,” with its three staff members in the inpatient population to its now 12 Child Life Specialists who span across nine pediatric areas of the hospital, including the Emergency Department, Endoscopy, Imaging, Hematology-Oncology Outpatient Unit, Proton Therapy, the Inpatient Units on Ellison 17 and 18, the Intensive Care Unit and Same Day Surgery. Accompanying Child Life’s evolution, Gifford has expanded the program, mentored new staff, and influenced policy and care, which Ron Kleinman, MD, Physician in Chief of MGHfC says has been instrumental in the development of family-centered care.
“Marilyn has contributed to our understanding that Child Life isn’t just nice to have, but it is an essential part of how we care for kids,” Dr. Kleinman says. “Under her steady hand and guidance, she has helped us identify children’s needs to cope with the hospital environment and to help them learn from it and heal faster. I deeply appreciate her, and she’s leaving a legacy that will never be forgotten.”
The Child Life Team, which utilizes therapeutic play and teaches coping skills to help children manage the stress and challenges of their healthcare experience, is reeling from the departure of their longtime mentor. Sacha Field, CCLS, who came to MGHfC as a student in 2004, became Gifford’s shadow, soaking in her expertise and poise. Field says after nine years, she still went to Gifford for advice and admired her quiet confidence.
“When you think of Child Life at Mass General, you think of Marilyn,” Field says. “We’ll never fill the void she’s left, but a little of her will live on in all of us because she’s molded us into being the specialists that we are.”
Gifford’s career was shaped early on by a love for children and an affinity for hospitals. When one of her cousins was born with cerebral palsy, Gifford says visiting him in the hospital inspired a fascination with medicine. The North Shore native pursued the Child Life program at Wheelock College in Boston, and then taught part time at North Shore Children’s Hospital while volunteering in their playroom. Her love for Child Life grew at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, where she spent five years before making the move to MGHfC. Throughout the years, Gifford has been an advocate for her profession.
“When I started out in the field, parents couldn’t go to the operating or recovery room to see their child. There wasn’t as much focus on family-centered care as there is now,” Gifford says. “Now, we work together with adult and pediatric providers to develop relationships with them and help them understand the value of Child Life.”
Although she may not have the loudest voice in the room, Ashley Reardon, CCLS, says Gifford was a humble leader and mentor by example. Seeing her interact with children and families is a fond memory of Reardon’s.
“She has such a soft presence about her that is calming to families during their hospital stay,” Reardon says. “She does it with such grace, and knows when to let a child and family take the lead and grow. Not many people have that ability, and I think that’s what she’s taught all of us – to go with our gut instincts as Child Life Specialists and connect with families at a real level.”
The Child Life Team, while sad to see her leave, takes comfort in knowing that Gifford will be enjoying the next chapter of her life and taking personal time after dedicating so much to the department. Gifford is looking forward to spending time with family and writing a children’s book, based on her inspirational experience with a 5-year-old Cambodian patient who reminded her of “The Little Prince.” But most of all, she finds peace in her retirement knowing that she was a member of the Child Life Team.
“I feel so blessed to have worked with the staff on our team and at Mass General. When I see how they’ve grown and developed in their Child Life roles, I’m so proud of them,” Gifford says. “I know the program is going to be in a great place and the team will continue to grow and personify the essence of Child Life in a professional and compassionate way.”