From Premie to Pre-Med
Sargent student’s new nonprofit benefits Mass General’s child life program
Lena Papadakis knows far too well how it feels to be a sick kid stuck in a hospital. As a triplet born at 32 weeks at Massachusetts General Hospital, Papadakis was the tiniest of the sisters, weighing in at just over two pounds. But unlike them, she spent years in and out of the hospital, suffering from issues such as chronic pneumonia, a common ailment of babies born with undeveloped lungs.
Now a healthy 21-year-old, Papadakis (Sargent’21) is a human physiology major with hopes of one day working in pediatric surgery. She is also the founder of Premie to Pre-Med, a nonprofit dedicated to raising money to support child life and wellness programs at local hospitals. Launched in October, the group has raised more than $5,700 to date for Mass General’s John Hancock Child Life and Wellness Program, with a goal of raising $10,000 by May 2021.
Today, as part of Giving Tuesday, a global day dedicated to charitable giving, Premie to Pre-Med is selling three-ply face masks with its logo as well as holding a holiday toy drive for children at Mass General to mark the occasion.
During her frequent hospitalizations, Papadakis recalls, visits from the child life team made her time less scary and more fun. Trained in developmental psychology, these specialists help reduce the anxiety and stress of their young patients by explaining in age-appropriate terms what will happen before treatments and procedures and providing coping techniques for what these children face, from needle sticks to preparation for major surgery. And whenever possible, they interject fun and silliness with games, toys, and activities.
Research has shown how important these specialists are for patients, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has endorsed the important role they play in helping both children and their families. The academy reports that interacting with child life specialists leads to less emotional stress, better coping, a clearer understanding of procedures, a more positive physical recovery, the need for fewer narcotics, and a reduced hospital stay.
“Child life was one of the biggest departments that normalized medicine for me,” Papadakis says. “It was where my passion for medicine came from. I was attending school, but at the same time battling these medical conditions and being seen on an outpatient basis. They helped me understand what was going on.”
The enormity of the coronavirus pandemic has forced many hospitals to redirect funds and scale down non-COVID programs, she says. The American Hospital Association estimates hospitals will lose more than $323 billion through the end of this year because of the pandemic. For child life programs, whose budgets are usually not fully covered by a hospital (many rely on outside donations), this has brought increased financial and logistical difficulty, according to Premie to Pre-Med.
What’s more, child life volunteers have not been able to visit Mass General and most other local hospitals since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, for fear of spreading the infection. Papadakis says the catalyst that drove her to found her group was an email from the volunteer department at Boston Children’s Hospital. She had been accepted as a volunteer there last spring, but the pandemic was delaying the program. She reached out to program administrators for an update in early August, and heard the same phrase she’d heard from other organizations: the program is on hold indefinitely.
“After reading that email, I quickly searched through the volunteer websites of surrounding hospitals and found that all pediatric volunteer programs were put on hold indefinitely,” Papadakis says. “Knowing how essential pediatric volunteer programs are to child life departments, I couldn’t help but wonder what impact this would have on patients—a question that had been growing in the back of my mind since I shadowed [at Mass General] in March. After realizing there was no way I would be able to volunteer in a hospital setting, I decided to find another route, and founded PTP.”
She was aided by her mother’s background in fundraising, and there are now 34 students involved in the group, the majority of them BU students.
Fundraising team coleader Nicole McGuigan (CGS’20, Sargent’22) found the group through a post looking for volunteers that was emailed to Sargent students. McGuigan was intrigued since she has a story similar to Papadakis’. “I was three weeks old when I had open-heart surgery, and I’ve been dealing with a lot of doctors along the way,” she says. “When I heard about this opportunity, I knew I had to become involved. I have been so fortunate to grow up healthy, since my heart condition was very serious.”
This semester, Papadakis has been a research intern working on maternal-fetal and pediatric newborn medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her work is largely focused on critical care transport, both of moms and their babies, which she says is important to her because of her long-standing interest in pediatric medicine and her personal connection to the Mass General Brigham system. Coincidentally, her boss and mentor trained under the obstetrician who delivered her and her sisters.
“My mom had a high-risk triplet pregnancy, I spent months in the NICU, I was transported to critical care units dozens of times as a child, and now here I am reading about similar cases and interacting with physicians on the other side,” she says. “It’s a bit like coming full circle.”