Author Archives: Tim Kehoe

Ally’s journey: How pet therapy helped me heal

By Ally Gillen

I’ve had a very eventful 14 years. My life has been full of happy, exciting and life-changing events that have made me who I am today. One event stands out that has changed my life the most.

When I was 10, I was sent to Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota with mysterious symptoms that my pediatrician could not figure out.  At Children’s I saw many doctors including an infectious disease specialist and a rheumatologist. After many tests and procedures, the rheumatologist determined I had juvenile dermatomyositis. It’s a rare auto immune disease that affects the muscles and tissues of your body. My case was one of the worst my doctor had ever seen and from that point on, I started my 49-day stay at Children’s in St. Paul.

Karlos, the pet therapy dog, visits Ally.

It was no fun lying there in the hospital bed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  I could not move (my muscles were so inflamed) and that made it even less fun because all I could do was watch TV. By the second day, I felt like I had pretty much watched everything.  Luckily, many people came to visit me including therapy dog teams, volunteers, and my family. Just seeing their faces made my days easier.

I loved visits from pet therapy dogs the most. I looked forward to their visits every day.  I missed my own dog from home so much and their visits helped me to miss her a little less. A special occupational therapist (OT) at Children’s learned how much I loved seeing the dogs and started to use them in her therapy sessions with me. At first all I could do was pet the dogs, but as my muscles got stronger, I would brush them, dress them, paint their toe nails and play tic-tac-toe on their backs. It was so much fun; I hardly knew I was working on just the things the OT wanted me to learn. The dogs helped me to get better, and I loved working with them.

We were so inspired by how much the therapy dogs aided my recovery that my family began training our family dog, and we now have a therapy dog of our very own!  In March 2011, our dog Angel passed her Pet Partners certification and now visits Children’s each week with my mom. This summer I got a new puppy of my own that I’m training to hopefully be our next therapy dog. After I finally left the hospital, I still got to work with a therapy dog in my OT sessions as an outpatient. I had fun doing obstacle courses and many other activities with the dogs.  It was so much fun that I looked forward to my OT sessions, and never once told my mom that I did not want to go.

Ally, Angel and Mickey

Throughout my life, there have been joys and challenges. During the rough times, I have always found a way to make the best of them.  I know that with the support of my family and friends I can get through anything.  As I get older I will carry the lessons I have learned throughout my life with me and share them with all the people I meet along the way.  I am hopeful that I can become an OT myself someday and work with therapy dogs and their owners to help other kids just like me!

Ally, 14, is a Youth Advisory Council member at Children’s. You can hear her talk more about pet therapy here. Learn about our Pets Assisting with Healing (PAWH) Volunteer Program here.

Mark’s story: Making my voice heard

By Mark Olson

Mark, middle, cuts the ribbon at the opening of the new teen lounge.

I was born with transposition of the arteries in my heart and had surgery to repair them when I was four days old. In fifth grade, I had another surgery to repair a narrowing of my aorta. And in November 2010, I got a pacemaker. It’s possible I’ll have another surgery in a few years to make my aortic valve stronger because it’s expanding and beginning to tear.

I’m only 18.

Given the number of medical issues I’ve faced during my short life and still face, I’ve learned how important it is to advocate for yourself in the hospital. It’s important for a few reasons. First, your doctors and nurses then know what’s going on with you and can help you. Second, you can help the hospital itself improve.

One of the ways I advocate is by participating in the Youth Advisory Council (YAC) at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. I’ve served on YAC for three years. I love Children’s, but I joined YAC because I thought I could make the hospital even better.

I believe I’ve made a difference in the lives of patients at Children’s. One way I’ve done that is by helping with the creation of the new teen lounge on the Minneapolis campus.

At meetings, I’m not one to be shy. I’m always asking questions. When I know a friend is going to the hospital, I ask him or her to give me feedback. How was the visit? Could Children’s have given better care? How? I bring the answers back to YAC.

Someday, I see myself advocating for others. And it’ll be at the bedside. I’m interested in going to medical school and specializing in cardiology. After my years of experience being a patient and a YAC member, I think I’d bring a unique perspective to the medical field.

I often tell people, “If you want something done, the only way people can know you want something done is to tell them. You’re the only person stopping something from happening.”

Mark Olson, 18, is a Youth Advisory Council Member at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota and a patient.

Dried cheese and oatmeal crumbs fall on deaf ears

By Maggie Sonnek

My family’s kitchen floor is dotted with dried oatmeal crumbs, pieces of cheese and this particular morning, the shepherd from our Christmas nativity set (which during the Christmas season has quickly become my son’s new favorite toy).

I used to sweep this lived-in kitchen every morning after my 1-year-old finished eating some of his toast and oatmeal and dropping the other half on the floor. He thought that was hilarious.

Even though sweeping the floor only took a moment or so, it was still a moment away from what I really wanted to be doing — playing with my son. And, I noticed that every piece of cheese that left his small hands and hit the floor made me cringe. It was another thing for me to pick up. So, I put the broom away and put a towel under his highchair. Problem solved.

This new attitude got me thinking. What else can I solve with a simple towel, figuratively speaking? So often, we (especially us mommas) try to be all things to all people. We try to have quality meals with our kids but also spotless kitchens. Is it all really possible? Maybe living with imperfection is the answer. It allows us to enjoy our kids and our lives and not feel guilty when things aren’t picture-perfect.

So, I’ve decided to proudly share my imperfections. Here goes (deep breath): I spread jam on my son’s toast and then use that same knife as a mirror to put on my mascara. I occasionally feed my family McDonald’s for dinner and don’t feel guilty about it. I even use my scarf to wipe my son’s runny nose. And then wear that scarf to work.

Here’s a secret: Although my eyelashes may not have triple the lash power, they look OK. My son is still alive, even after eating fast food once in a while. My co-workers didn’t run from me in disgust when I showed up wearing a scarf that has seen better days.

The other day, my husband and I were cleaning  the house, getting ready to celebrate Christmas with some friends. He gathered up my catch-all towel in search of a covert hiding place so our guests wouldn’t have to look at it. I stopped him. This towel may not be pretty, but it represents where we are in our lives right now. Someday that towel will be put away permanently, but until that day comes, I’ll live with it in my kitchen. In fact, I’ll enjoy the fact that it has become part of our house and our lives. Along with the dried oatmeal and cheese. And the shepherd from the nativity set.

Maggie Sonnek works in the marketing and communications department at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. She lives in St. Louis Park with her husband and 15-month-old son.

Getting and giving parenting advice

By Jeri Kayser 

The holiday season is upon us, full of celebrations and gatherings with family and friends. There are plenty of cookies, leftover turkey and fortunately (or unfortunately) unlimited parenting advice.

  • The advice can be fun when Grandma recounts the temper tantrum your mother threw in the grocery store when she was little and how it was handled.
  • The advice can be helpful when your sister-in-law tells you about a website with deeply discounted baby supplies.
  • The advice can feel judgmental, overwhelming or misinformed when a bunch of aunts declare your baby must be cold because they are. “Why don’t you put a sweater on that child? He’s going to catch pneumonia!”

On the flip side, when you’ve lived life and raised kids, you do have some worthwhile advice to share. It’s hard to watch others struggle when you have good parenting tricks up your sleeve. So, how do we maintain family harmony and actually make this advice business work?  Some thoughts….

Unsolicited advice is rarely valuable. To be motivated to follow advice, it’s best if we actually sought it. As a Child Life Specialist, my day is filled with offering advice to parents on how they can help their child cope with their medical care experience. If the advice is going to be valuable, it has to be given with respect to the individual child and families’ needs, as well as their ability and desire to hear the information. Letting someone know what you have to offer and then respecting their decision as to whether they’d like the advice will encourage a dialogue that’s supportive.

No two situations are the same.  We’re unique individuals. A parenting technique that worked with one child might not work with another. Plus, every parent has their own set of skills and challenges that they work with when parenting. My mother-in-law gave me one of the greatest gifts possible (not counting her incredible, perfect son!). She told me when we had our first child that she wouldn’t tell me how to raise him if I didn’t tell her how to raise her kids. She recognized and respected the fact that we would each have our own style and would be more supportive of each other when we removed judgment.

Is now the right moment? In the midst of a huge toddler meltdown, no one is going to hear anything clearly. During the middle of a challenge is when you feel the most vulnerable as a parent. If you’re the advice giver, find a time later to reflect on what happened. If you’re the recipient of advice at an inopportune moment, be ready to redirect, “I would love to hear your perspective later Aunt Bertha, but I need to deal with this right now.”

Be open to the possibilities of great ideas in the sea of advice. When you’re pregnant, you’re a magnet for advice. People feel compelled to give it. During each of my pregnancies, parents at the hospital would offer me advice. Some of the hints I politely listened to and discarded because it wasn’t right for me, but most of the advice proved to be phenomenally helpful.

When people love us they want to help. They want to know the knowledge they have acquired in life is valuable. We also want to forge our own unique paths. When we are respectful in giving and getting advice, it can be priceless in the tremendous challenge of parenting.

This is a post by Jeri Kayser, who’s been a Child Life Specialist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota since 1985. Her educational background is in child development and psychology. She has three children who have been a great source of anecdotes to help illustrate developmental perspective. They’re wonderful at being good sports about it.

Supporting kids after trauma

By Lizzi Kampf

As adults, we often face a variety of difficult emotions in the face of tragedy. The impact of a traumatic event can be substantial, whether it’s a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado, one that is man-made as we saw last week with the horrific mass shooting in Connecticut, or even one that is within a family, such as a car accident or the sudden death of a loved one. Our strong emotional reactions stem from an assault on our basic sense of safety and security. Children can experience these same emotions; however, their young brains aren’t yet fully developed and able to process them in the same way.

Many children express symptoms and feelings of helplessness and fear following a traumatic event. They may become unusually quiet, have problems sleeping, or be weary of separating from caregivers. They may react with agitation, or be unusually restless or aggressive. They may voice more worries or concerns about their own health, the health of others, and their general safety. Some children regress to behaviors they haven’t had since early childhood, such as sucking their thumb, wetting their bed, or baby talk. The good news is that children are naturally resilient and tend to return to whatever level of functioning they were at prior to the event.

Here are some things parents can do to support their children following a traumatic event:

  • Children live their lives through play. Utilize dolls, drawing, or role-playing games to help them express themselves and talk about what happened. Most kids want to talk about what they’ve experienced. Sometimes scary events need to be played out to be worked through. It helps them process what has occurred and use problem-solving skills.
  • Allow your children space to talk about their feelings. They may need to express their fears multiple times and be reassured of their safety frequently. Validate the feelings they are having and assure them that it is “normal” to feel the way they do.
  • Maintain as much structure and daily routine as possible. It can be difficult if your home is unlivable, you have to attend a funeral, or general daily life is disrupted. As much as possible, do the things your family enjoyed prior to the event, such as particular bedtime routines. Children also still need to have rules and discipline; this gives them a sense of order in the chaos.
  • Stay in check of your own reactions. It’s okay for children to witness parents having their own emotions, but they also need to hear an adult talk about how they manage those emotions. Model good self care for your child, making sure to take care of your own physical and mental health.

If you or your child is struggling following a tragedy and feel you need additional assistance, seek professional help through local crisis resources, a mental health counselor, or your doctor.

Lizzi Kampf is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who works primarily in the Emergency Department on the St. Paul campus of Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. She is also a volunteer with the Red Cross and recently returned from a deployment to New Jersey. As part of the Disaster Mental Health team, she worked to provide brief therapeutic services to individuals and families who had been affected by Superstorm Sandy. 

Navigating the holidays with food allergies

The holidays can be tough. You’re shuffling your family from school party to neighborhood shindig to a gathering with relatives. Throw food allergies into the mix, and what’s supposed to be one of the happiest times of the year can be stressful. Like really stressful.

We’re all too familiar with how exposures can be a matter of life or death for children with food allergies. We recently shared the story of Noelle Dilley (“Noelle’s story: The danger of one bite”) who suffered an allergic reaction after eating a cupcake that contained peanut butter. Sadly, she spent 31 days in our Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) but is doing great today and back to her happy, spirited self.

Because food is often a big part of holiday celebrations, we want to help you navigate them with ease. We want the child in your life to be able to experience this time of the year like every other kid in the safest way possible.

So we talked with Ellen Wade and Janie Cooperman, dietitians at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, for tips. They emphasized that success is all about planning and offered these suggestions:

  1. If your relatives or neighbors are hosting the gathering, talk with them ahead of time about the menu and clearly communicate your child’s special health needs. Think about what will help your child be most safe. You may want to ask them to skip the bowl of mixed nuts or pass on the deviled eggs this year.
  2. Educate friends and family about cross-contamination. Even if a food item is removed, it leaves behind food proteins until washed with soap and water. Safe foods can get contaminated by touching other foods or residue from utensils, serving platters or even hands
  3. Bring safe alternatives for your child. Knowing the menu ahead of time will help you bring something similar so he or she doesn’t feel left out.
  4. Survey the scene upon arrival. Take a quick look for food allergens that may be present (even if you’ve already agreed on a plan with the host, someone else may have brought something). Some common offenders at other people’s homes may be food residue in play areas, dog food (may include food allergens such as eggs or milk) and bowls/platters of candy in open areas.
  5. Bring baby or disinfectant wipes to quickly wipe down surface areas your child may come in contact with, such as table tops or shared toys. Wipes are great whenever soap and water aren’t easily accessible. You can also use wipes to wash hands.
  6. Don’t forget your medicine kit! Even when you plan ahead, accidents can happen. Families with severe food allergies always need to have an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an Epi Pen, Jr) and an antihistamine such as Benadryl with them at all times.

We’ve collected a few recipes from the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network you might want to use in your holiday meal.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Milk, egg, peanut and tree nut free

Make your own granola bites

Milk, egg, wheat, peanut, and tree nut free

Parsley-potato stuffing

Milk, egg, wheat, peanut and tree nut free

Join us for more discussion about food allergies and the holidays during a Twitter chat on Wednesday, Dec. 12, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. We, along with Missy Berggren (@marketingmama), whose daughter has several food allergies, invite you to share your experiences and ask questions on Twitter. We’ll also have allergist Dr. Nancy Ott and Children’s dietitians on hand. Follow Children’s at @childrensmn and the hashtag #childrenschat.


Dr. Nancy Ott is a board-certified allergy, asthma and immunology specialist. She earned her medical degree at the University of Minnesota in 1984. She’s among Children’s professional staff and she’s been practicing with Southdale Pediatric Associates, Ltd., since 1991.

Missy Berggren is a parent to a 5-year-old girl with severe food allergies to eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish, and a 7-year-old son with no known food allergies. Her daughter’s diagnosis at 12 months old led Missy to learn about food allergies, and she now serves on the Board of Directors for the Food Allergy Support Group of Minnesota to help support other families and raise awareness of life-threatening food allergies. She shares her experiences with food allergies in helpful articles on her parenting blog Marketing Mama and is a trusted ally and advocate for parents of children with food allergies. Missy has 15-plus years of experience in marketing and communications in the health care arena and is currently the brand manager at Allina Health.

Ellen Wade is a registered dietitian and has worked at Children’s for 11 years. She’s encountered many cases of food allergies and has helped guide families in navigating allergies while still enjoying a healthy diet.

Janie Cooperman is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator. She currently works in Children’s outpatient diabetes clinics and inpatient eating disorders program.


Former Children’s patient lands dream job, gives back

By Andrew McIlree

Christina Ledin is more than a talented young professional establishing her career. The 26- year-old woman has already discovered her capacity to live with purpose and to help others through one of her earliest childhood experiences – as a cancer survivor at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

Ledin recalls getting repeatedly sick to her stomach just before her second birthday. Her skin turned yellow, and she wouldn’t eat. Her pediatrician sent her to Children’s, where doctors discovered a Wilms’ tumor, the size of a grapefruit, on her left kidney. Treatment began immediately.

In her memory, the healing journey at Children’s wasn’t as scary as it could have been, thanks to the skills and personalities of the Cancer and Blood Disorders team, Ledin said, noting that Dr. Bruce Bostrom had a Cookie Monster doll in his office that she enjoyed. Her parents, too, appreciated the dedication of her doctors and nurses.

“My dad would see Dr. Margaret Heisel Kurth in my room, going over paperwork at 11:30 at night,” Ledin said. “And then he would see her in that same spot in the early morning. The team never stopped taking care of their patients.”

With the help of surgery and chemotherapy, her tumor was gone, Ledin said. She’s been in remission ever since. She’s proud and grateful for surviving such an ordeal at an early age, and she was able to live a normal childhood in Plymouth, Minn. Ledin later went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in health care management at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.

Now her life has come full circle.

“Where I wanted to work my whole life was at Children’s,” she said. “But I never thought I’d be lucky enough to work for Children’s Foundation right out of college.”

Ledin, already employed at her dream job, went a giant leap further by making an estate gift to Children’s in early 2012. The Richard, Pamela, Katherine, and Christina Ledin Family Endowment will support the Cancer and Blood Disorders program at Children’s by providing it money and resources for years to come.

“Children’s saved my life, and we as a patient family were helped in different ways,” she said. “That level of care is due to people’s generosity, and I don’t have to wait until I’m older to think about making a difference for other families.”

As Ledin credits her healing journey at Children’s for playing a strong role in the formation of her life’s passions and values, the young woman often finds herself reflecting on moments as a child spent with her Cancer and Blood Disorders care team.

“The one thing I miss the most about my Dr. Heisel Kurth checkup visits,” she said, “is her cleaning my ears.”


Safety first: Holiday shopping for the kids in your life

By Kristi Moline

We’re a few weeks into the holiday shopping season. That came fast, didn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I still have some shopping left. At the top of my shopping list are gifts for my two small children. They’re 3 years old and 6 months old.

Both as a mom and in my role as program manager for injury prevention at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, I think about safety first when I decide what gets put in the shopping cart.

Like all parents, I want my children to enjoy their toys. I buy toys that are fun and stimulate learning and growth. But, safety rules. Sadly, I’ve seen first-hand what can happen when a child gets a potentially dangerous toy in his grip. It can lead to injury or worse.

While working on this blog post, I learned that 13 kids age 14 and under died from a toy-related incident, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. A startling 262,000 were treated for toy-related injuries in emergency departments in 2011. The usual suspects for causing injuries are non-motorized scooters, toy vehicles and toy balls.

If those of you reading this are anything like me, you probably haven’t finished shopping yet, either. I’ve collected some safety tips – with the help of the CPSC –that I hope will help guide what you put in your shopping cart this holiday season:

  1. Read the label. Buy age-appropriate toys that suit the child’s interest and skill levels.
  2. Small balls and toys with small parts can cause choking. For kids under 3, avoid these toys.
  3. If you give or your child gets anything with wheels – like a scooter, bike or in-line skates – make wearing a helmet a rule. A properly fitted helmet should be worn every time and everywhere. For more information on this, visit our Making Safe Simple website.
  4. Anything containing a magnet can be dangerous and kept away from kids under 14.
  5. Check that toys are of high quality design and construction.
  6. Make sure  instructions are easy to follow; discard toy packaging immediately so it doesn’t become a hazard.
  7. Once playing is underway, supervise children accordingly.

Here’s to a happy and safe holiday season.

Ramsey County kids ‘lost’ in the medical system are found at Children’s

A child is left with a family friend, and the parents are nowhere to be found.

A teacher notices bruising over several weeks and worries the student is being abused.

The police are called, and the child is taken to the Emergency Department at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota before being placed in short-term foster care.

Through the Ramsey County Shelter Program, kids who are victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment in the county are taken to Children’s in St. Paul and given a full medical screening, new clothes thanks to the Children’s Foundation and a meal. Once they get the care they need, they’re placed in short-term foster care.

“We can get these kids healthier so they have a better childhood and a healthier, long-term life,” said Dr. Kellee Street, the medical director of the program.

There have been more than 12,300 patient visits since the program’s start in 1993, said Jean Henry, program coordinator. Children’s sees an average of one to two at-risk kids per day. As of mid-November, there had been 368 visits this year.

It’s critical for police officers to know they can take kids to a safe place to be evaluated, said St. Paul police Chief Tom Smith.

“This does make a huge difference here (in the community),” Smith said.

A recent lead gift from the Peter J. King Family Foundation has helped transform the St. Paul Emergency Department, and those physical changes help it continue to be a safe space for youth in the program. The updates also improve care and dramatically cut down on patient and family wait times. (Pioneer Press story here)

Street believes the county program is one of a few, if not the only, in the United States where kids to be placed in short-term foster care are first screened by medical staff.  In other counties and beyond Minnesota, children typically aren’t screened for up to 48 to 72 hours, she said.

Often, they lack current vaccinations, have poor dental health or have increased lead levels due to exposure where they live, Street said. Elevated lead levels can result in long-term developmental problems.

Children’s staff contact the child’s provider – if there is one – or inform the county if follow-up care is needed, Street said. In some cases, the child is admitted into the hospital.

“There are things we pick up that most people would never have found,” she said. “These are kids that are lost in the medical system.”