Northwestern nominates child life specialist for CCCU Young Alumni Award

Rachel (Muilenburg) Kinsinger, a 2014 Northwestern College alumna and Orange City native who is a child life specialist for Seattle Children’s Hospital, is Northwestern’s nominee for the 2020 Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) Young Alumni Award.

The award recognizes an individual who has achieved uncommon leadership or success in a way that reflects the values of Christian higher education. The winner will be chosen by a committee and recognized at a CCCU conference in January. Felipe Silva, a 2012 Northwestern alumnus who founded and directs a climbing gym as a way to reach out to at-risk children and teens in an economically depressed region of Romania, won the award in 2017.

While a child life fellow at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital in Southern California, Kinsinger pioneered a method that enabled many children to undergo MRIs without anesthesia—which meant shorter wait times, reduced cost and less worry. Previously, most kids under 12 were automatically given anesthesia because of assumed anxiety caused by the confined space and loud noises, as well as the need to hold perfectly still for a long period of time. The wait time was at least three months, which increased apprehension for patients and their families.

Kinsinger reviewed the records of the children on the wait list and determined if they would be good candidates for a scheduled practice MRI session—and potentially a non-anesthesia MRI. Then, using a decommissioned MRI, she set up a practice area with a gurney and slide board and offered free appointments to eligible patients.

Kinsinger, a Northwestern psychology major who earned a master’s degree in child life from Loma Linda University, used images and sounds to imitate a real scan experience and talked to children about their individual fears. She implemented a variety of techniques to reduce anxiety and promote cooperation. Patients could squeeze “bravery balls” when they had an urge to move. And they were encouraged to wear comfortable clothes without zippers so they wouldn’t have to change into a hospital gown.

After preparing children for the practice session and working through their specific concerns, Kinsinger observed them in the scanner. Children who could stay still in the scanner for two minutes were cleared to schedule an appointment without anesthesia.

After just a few months, 37 patients were able to complete the MRI awake. Kinsinger’s success rate was around 93%, and children as young as 4 were able to be scanned without anesthesia. The Association of Child Life Professionals took note, describing the results in an article at childlife.org.

Kinsinger says her passion for child life and assisting people going through challenges stems from her Christian faith. “Even small acts of kindness and love can make a big difference,” she says.

Now a child life specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, she works with patients from 44 different specialty clinics, preparing kids for pokes and scopes. One day Kinsinger could be helping a 5-year-old girl who needs a genital exam. At other times she’s preparing kids for a scope of their throat or a blood draw.

“I tell them I’m like a teacher,” she says. “I’ll talk you through what the procedure will be like, help you know what will happen next, and give you advice on how to cope with it. And I’ll be there during the procedure to help with any anxiety.”

Kinsinger says her work at Seattle Children’s is expanding to a wide variety of procedures and diagnoses—something she enjoys. “While at Northwestern, I developed an eagerness to learn that was inspired by the passion of my professors. They cultivated an environment of learning, exploring and questioning, which is an amazing setting for growth.”

The daughter of a doctor, Kinsinger was always interested in healthcare. After considering a number of science-related careers, she fell in love with psychology as a freshman. She discovered that a career as a child life specialist would enable her to combine her interests in healthcare and child development. After volunteering to play with kids at two hospitals twice a week one summer, she knew she wanted to become a child life specialist.

Now more than three years into her career, Kinsinger sees confirmation of that calling. “I love being able to make hard things easier for kids and their families,” she says. “It’s really rewarding.”

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