By Luke Frank

UNM Child Life Nest Empties a Little

Retiring Director Julia Grimes Leaves Program in Good Hands

An ocean of tears fell in University of New Mexico Children's Hospital's Child Life Center as staff and patient families said goodbye to director Julia Grimes after 30 years of comforting and nurturing the hospital's smallest, most vulnerable patients.

Tiny patients pulling IV poles garnished with tubes and bags have filled the halls of UNM Children's Hospital for decades. Today, kids round the corner in the Child Life Center and bolt directly to the kiddie basketball hoops, the crafts corner or the computer center. The program has grown considerably over the years - and many credit Grimes.

Nested on UNM Hospital's sixth floor, Child Life supports little patients and their loved ones through the rigors of frightful diagnoses, difficult treatments and arduous rehabilitation. The program focuses on the development and well-being of its visitors using therapeutic play, music therapy, art therapy, pet therapy and more. Child Life also prepares patients and their families for procedures logistically, physically and emotionally by helping them to develop coping strategies and rehearse medical scenarios.

It's natural that Grimes was drawn to Child Life: she's spent her life championing the underrepresented, beginning with herself. "I was the oldest of three kids, but throughout my childhood I competed with my brothers in every way I could," she says. "It was two against one."

Growing up in Denver, Grimes describes herself as independent and a little hardheaded. "I think the summer camps every year brought it out in me," she says. "I learned all of these exciting things - archery, marksmanship, canoeing, horseback riding."

When it came time to select a college, Grimes opted out of the small women's college her parents supported and attended the University of Wisconsin, where she studied to become a history teacher. Following graduation, she transplanted to Boston as a Harvard University administrative secretary. Grimes became active in the women's movement, joined a group of under-represented colleagues at the university and tried to unionize the staff.

"I was very frontline in the movement," she recalls. "It felt very important and exciting. That's also where I met my husband, Jeff." The couple moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where she attended library school while he studied law. They were married two years later and moved to Albuquerque in 1976.

Grimes' experienced the very anxieties Child Life families go through with the birth of her first child, a daughter. "She spiked a fever and was a sepsis baby," Grimes says. "So she was admitted to the UNM Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for a week. It terrified me."

That feeling stuck with her.

Following the birth of her second child, a son, Grimes gave up her real estate license and started working with Child Life, assembling a resource library for parents and families to learn about medical conditions afflicting their children. When the directorship opened a couple of years later, Grimes applied for the job and says she was shocked when she was hired.

"We resolved from the beginning to demonstrate to families and their medical teams how we can be helpful and nonthreatening at the same time," she says. "We started an early literacy program for kids who were stuck in the hospital called 'Reach Out and Read.'"

Under Grimes, Child Life specialists have spread to critical care units, inpatient and outpatient units, and children's hospice. They have initiated programs like "Beads of Courage," where kids earn specific beads to strand together based on their illness, treatment, procedures and visits.

"I've met so many amazing people here, including hundreds of thousands of kids from across New Mexico," Grimes says. "We've seen kids from all walks of life, and the one thing they all have in common is that they look to us for help when they're sick or hurting."

Reina Baron has been a Child Life child development specialist for the past eight years. She credits Grimes with patiently teaching her team to develop and share ideas. "She's built our confidence and bolstered our leadership to keep Child Life evolving on behalf of our patients and their families," Baron says.

"I'll miss this group of strong, smart, get-it-done women," Grimes laments. "We've been through so much together, it's really hard to say goodbye after 30 years. These ladies are amazing, respectful, patient, empathetic - they can handle it. I'm very satisfied with our work, and it'll be nice to sleep in."

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