Jackson smiling with a fake moustache
By Nicole San Roman

Prescription for Play

Child Life Program Helps Young Patients Navigate Their Treatment Regimen at UNM Children’s Hospital

The playroom is quiet and still until little Jackson Trinh comes running in, full of energy and excitement.

He grabs a ball, dribbles and sets his sights on the basket a few feet in front of him. With singular focus, he shoots, and in one satisfying whoosh, the ball glides through the net. He laughs and in an instant, the ball is back in his hands as he prepares for his next shot.

It’s a game so many young boys his age love, but this is no ordinary playroom and Jackson is no ordinary boy. These few minutes of normality are just a brief respite as Jackson moves from one treatment to the next at UNM Children’s Hospital. Jackson is 9 years old. He has cancer.

On this afternoon, Jackson is coming from his oncology appointment on the hospital’s third floor. Before heading in for chemotherapy, Jackson and his parents stopped by the Child Life playroom.

Two years ago, Jackson was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia – ALL. He’s now in the maintenance phase of his treatment, which means he gets regular rounds of chemo. Jackson’s dad Thao smiles watching his son play. “He likes basketball because he’s better than all of us and foosball because he loves to beat dad.” 

Even though Jackson has only a few minutes to play, these minutes matter.


Kids need to be kids. They need to be able to come in the playroom and play basketball or play a card game, or do art and get crazy and messy like they would at home.
Jamie Shields, UNM Hospital Child Life Specialist

“Kids need to be kids,” said UNM Hospital Child Life specialist Jamie Shields. “They need to be able to come in the playroom and play basketball or play a card game, or do art and get crazy and messy like they would at home.”

Shields and fellow Child Life specialist Marisol Lin, say their job is about bringing comfort to children who are facing a scary journey. “For kids, this is all foreign to them,” Lin said. “Think about if you were to go to a country you've never been. You don't speak the language, you don't know where things are. We come in and help normalize and explain things in a way that they can understand.”

Sometimes that normalization is visiting a patient in their room during a stressful situation, like when nurses are placing an IV, or there are other medical procedures taking place.

“So just coming in and bringing the teddy bear, blowing some bubbles – something simple that can bring the temperature down in the room and give them something else to focus on,” Lin said. “Everything else is unknown, but that’s something they know and can rely on.”

UNM Children’s Hospital is the only pediatric medical center in New Mexico, just one of 250 in the country. Last year the hospital treated more than 85,000 kids. This year, one in six children in the state will receive care at UNM Children’s Hospital.


“It’s hard to see kids struggle,” Lin said, adding that children need to process what they are going through. “Sometimes it’s OK for them to be sad. Sometimes we just need to sit with them and let that be OK. And when they’re ready, we can make slime or watch their favorite movie.”

Playing doesn’t just impact the kids at UNM Children’s Hospital, it’s important for parents, too.

“I had a dad tell me once, ‘We were stressed out and everything was crazy, but once we saw her play, it just made me know that we will be OK, things will be OK,’” Shields said. “It helps them take a break from it all and just be a mom and dad again and play with their kid and not have all the other things to focus on.”

Back in the Child Life playroom, it’s almost time for Jackson to go. “It perks him up that at least this is available to him,” his dad said. “He doesn’t think about it as having to come here, it’s just making a visit to a playground. It’s what he loves. He loves this place.”

After a few quick games of his favorites, basketball and foosball, Jackson and his parents head down the hall for the next round of chemo, where Jackson will sit for several hours. Even though it’s hard, Jackson smiles brightly for a picture, wearing a fun little black mustache given to him by his support team at UNM Children’s Hospital.

It’s a reminder that he’s still a kid and there’s always room for play.

Want to Help?

You can help UNM Children’s Hospital by donating during 100.3 The Peak’s Radiothon on March 3, 2023. Your donations help purchase toys, books, arts and crafts as well as help to fund programs and purchase lifesaving medical equipment.

Categories: Child Life, Children's Hospital, Community Engagement, Health, News You Can Use, Top Stories