Brain Tumor Stories

How to Talk to a Sick Kid, From a Former Sick Kid

By the start of first grade, Molly M., of Minnesota, had learned the ropes of health care.

A survivor of brain tumor surgeries at ages 2 and 6, she had endured enough needle-pokes to take charge of IV technicians aiming for her best veins.

On more than one occasion, the freckle-faced kid with bangs looked a phlebotomist in the eye and said, “Let’s make this one-and-done.”

A Very Long Health Journey

An MRI veteran before kindergarten, Molly learned to bring from home her own music to drown out the jackhammer-like noise inside the tube. In the early days, her go-to was the The Little Mermaid soundtrack.

As Molly’s brain tumors were benign (gangliogliomas), surgery was her cure. No chemo. No radiation.

The only outward mark of what has been a very long health journey is a question mark-shaped scar at her right temple, visible when she pulls her hair into a high ponytail.

Former Sick Kid Becoming an RN

all grown up

Molly, above, at age 7, and today at 21. Now a nursing student, she shows her “Little Mermaid” soundtrack and a doll given to her by an MRI nurse.

Fifteen years since her second surgery, Molly continues to be monitored for tumor recurrence. She remains enrolled in the landmark Long-Term Follow-Up (LTFU) study, measuring the long-term effects on children of treatment for serious illness.

Now 21, in excellent health, and studying to become an RN, this former sick kid shares tips from her personal perspective on how grownups can best communicate with pint-size patients:

Tip 1: Hello … I Can Hear You.

“So many times, I remember conversations going on actually above my head. I was young, but I knew they were talking about me. I wasn’t yet able to put my feelings into words, but I definitely didn’t like it. One thing that registered with me, all those years ago, was when my favorite doctor, neurosurgeon Walter Hall, would sit on a low stool in the exam room so he could ask me questions directly. It put us on the same eye level.”

Tip 2. Let’s Talk About Cinderella.

“I was a patient at a teaching hospital, and the same Dr. Hall—quite tall in my mind’s eye, but as I was just a peanut he could have been any height—traveled with an “entourage.” The people in white coats, now I know them as residents and med students, asked about my bowel movements (gross) and how I would describe my level of post-procedure pain (what?). But Dr. Hall always inquired about Cinderella, Little Mermaid and Pocahontas. My idols! I’m sure he asked medical questions, too, but because he hit on my ‘area of interest,’ I was Miss Cooperative.”

Tip 3. Just the Facts, Ma’am.

“As sick kids should do, I left management and discussion of scary health details to my parents. It was only important to me that Kit-Kat bars were available in the hospital gift shop, that my partially shaved head could still hold a braid and that I could wear my Scooby-Doo dress home. When I got older, my parents would say things like, ‘If there are things you want to know, let’s talk.’ It was years before I took them up on the offers, but looking back, I liked knowing answers were out there, whenever I was ready to ask the questions.”

Care to Share Your Own Tips?

If you have tips on how to talk with kids who are in the midst of a health crisis, please add to the list in the “Comment” section directly below.

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Comments (42)

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Rhonda Dumont May 09, 2019 11:11am
Molly this is awesome information to be shared, for children by former child patient! I commend you for your persistence, desire to help others and for sharing. I wish for you continued good health and happy life! P.S. The tips are actually good for adults: 1.. Adults don't like to be 'talked about' either 2.. Finding areas of interest to talk about help to connect patient/doctor and all the other 'stuff' discussed might seem less intrusive 3. Eye level discussions/chats are always best....regardless of age 4. Just the facts is exactly on target....when will I recover, what can I eat? and most importantly when can I go home As a teacher and now brain trauma care giver to my hubby, all of this is hits home . God's speed to you and all those suffering poor health! Rhonda D. Virginia
Sharon Apr 11, 2019 11:17am
Fantastic suggestions... from the kid who lived the adults who need to know. Thanks!
joann jardegger Aug 24, 2018 11:15am
molly this is an awesome story. thanks pat for sharing. welcome to wonderful world of healthcare from the other side. i wish u the very best as you start your career at united!
terry lee poulson Dec 15, 2017 9:30pm
What a wonderful story!. Thank you.
Gibson Janet W. Dec 15, 2017 10:57am
Thx Molly - great and helpful information ! Bless you.
Brad Leslie Dec 15, 2017 8:29am
Pray for the best
Brad Leslie Dec 15, 2017 8:25am
Take it one day at a time
Dianne Davis Dec 15, 2017 7:49am
I like the idea of sitting and getting on the child’s level. It’s also important to LISTEN to the child and ask if he/she has any questions.
Brad Leslie Dec 15, 2017 2:56am
Remember your parents are looking out for your best interests
Brad Leslie Dec 15, 2017 2:53am
Stay positive
Brad Leslie Dec 15, 2017 2:52am
Praying someone loves you
Brad Leslie Dec 15, 2017 2:51am
Thanks for all who help
Mary Lou Block Dec 14, 2017 10:16pm
When I was a registered nurse student working in pediatrics, I found it helpful to quickly learn the name of my patients' stuffed animals or dolls, whatever they had in bed with them. We could easily talk about them and use them as connecting points for building caring relationships. And when performing procedures, it was very important to address even the youngest patients respectfully by their name (or nickname, if appropriate) and to inform them briefly, clearly and soothingly as to what was going to happen next (such as, "I'm going to wipe your arm with this soft, wet cotton ball; it will feel cold for a little bit) and to let them know they were OK and "being good".
Ruthie Jul 28, 2017 12:24am
I love this! As a childhood cancer survivor myself I relate to these on all the levels. :) It was beautifully put- esp the last one. Just give them the answers in terms they understand - they know when they aren't hearing the full truth!
Joelle Atkinson Jul 27, 2017 6:11pm
I never comment on articles like this, but this is SO true! I was transplanted at 18 months old and then again at 9 years old. For the first 10 years of my life, I was hospitalized, poked for blood draws, had procedures and was exposed to doctors galore. The doctors that talked to me, the nurses that were understanding and the phlebotomists that did the best with my shallow veins are the ones that made an incredible impact in my life. Now, at 28, I'm an occupational therapist and treat every patient I meet, no matter old or young, with the utmost respect and dignity. It really goes a very very long way!
Sue Harrington Jul 22, 2017 5:38pm
Great article ! I think it's so important to know how to make children feel safe and to give them permission to ask questions. And I'd add, wonderful insights into what's important anyone who's sick - routines and familiar favorites always make anyone, any age, feel better :)
Kristin McCurry Jul 21, 2017 8:41am
Talk about what makes them happy smile laugh love fill the room with Joy. Put up all their favorite posters and pictures. Sing their favorite songs with them. My daughter ELIZABETH is 28 years old now and she has lived through so much heart surgerys leukemia in the other surgeries. She's always bringing joy of movies music to everyone and letting others know how special they are. Every day can be magical if you make it that way. I feel that no matter who is sick if you work at making their life magical each day it will always be remembered. This is a gift of love.
Karen Bartholomew Jul 20, 2017 8:49pm
My grandson will soon undergo surgery for brain cancer, for the second time. Medulloblastoma. The doctors realized at one point that he was paying attention. "He understands, doesn't he?" At 2 1/2 he understood a lot, and he chose what to pay attention to and what not to. Fantasy play was his escape. He's been every superhero in the books, and I have no doubt this same ability to escape into his imagination will see him through this next battle. Thank you for the insights about what to share, how open to be, and what to let slide. It would be wonderful if my grandson grew up to be a health care practitioner of some sort. You are a wonderful model!
Larry Hellman Jul 19, 2017 4:17pm
Children listen to stories in cartoon figures in their heads. A child will listen to a story and then stare at the picture, embracing details that adults often over look. I have found that talking to hurting children works best in picture words and seeing colorful pictures. Usually they are scared, so be patient.
Karen Carty Jul 19, 2017 2:13pm
These are such good guidelines for talking to children in any stressful environment. As Victim's Advocate in a Prosecutor's Office for more than a decade, I learned the value of sitting in little chairs at little tables or cross-legged on the floor with frightened, abnormally quiet children. Doctor's have so little time (or take so little time) to relate to these patients, and mom and dad are often so upset they aren't themselves. Usually I could get them to talk about their pets, their siblings (especially if there was a baby in the house), their favorite toy or game, their favorite/least favorite food. Sometimes we would color together. Whatever the event, kids need reassurances that they are safe, they are understood, and they are not alone.
Sherry Rayner Jul 19, 2017 12:34pm
Loved the tips from Molly, she knows how we can help. As a volunteer for Pathways Home Health and Hospice, for 22 years and am on the Kid's Team we are always looking for ways to connect! Thanks, Molly. Around holiday time, any holiday I would always bring things to decorate with in their rooms. Decorating a mini pumpkin or decorating a tiny tree can be an uplift as well as an activity. Tying ribbons around stuffed animals as holiday scarves or making earmuffs out of cotton balls and qui tips is fun too. Painting toenails or fingernails in fun colors and me joining in is fun too. Anxious to hear more from others.
Christian D. Orr Jul 19, 2017 12:29pm
God bless and kudos to you for making it this far on your life's journey, Molly!
Tracy Jul 19, 2017 11:40am
Remembering children are smarter and more aware than we think is a very helpful tool for all. Thank you for sharing your story. I am amazed to see how many awesome brave children of ailments/disease/surgeries go into the medical field to help find cures and help others. Sometimes I believe that might be one of the purposes for having gone through so much - you guys make THE BEST medical "employees" because you know so much more than books can teach. Thank you !!!
Pamela Roebuck Jul 19, 2017 8:50am
I love this story! Compassionate communication and the ability to truly listen with our hearts is essential in healing. The doctor who met this child at her own level by sitting on a low stool was brilliant. He understood that to be a good listener one must be at the patient's level. Not just physically but emotionally as well. Compassionate listening....Being there
Barbara Tkach Jul 19, 2017 8:48am
Thank you for sharing this about Molly so we can transfer whose thoughts and success stories with our loved ones. We should be more aware of the miracles working around and in us.
Pamela Roebuck Jul 19, 2017 8:44am
Loved the straight and honest discussion. It is always paramount to meet anyone who is sick at their own level. The doctor who sat on the low stool and had eye to eye contact is brilliant. An elder once gave me the advise that if you were to heal a truck driver then you must be more like the truck driver. We do not heal by looking above or below another person...only at their level can compassionate communication take place. It goes beyond the physical. It includes all levels of 'being there.' Listen with your heart.
Susan Harrison Jul 19, 2017 7:00am
I am an adult and recently had shoulder surgery, but I can vouch for what Molly says. I may be 70 but please, Docs, talk TO me. I felt enormously stressed when some person came in to talk to me about IV infusion for an infection. I was still in post surgery anesthesia cloud and he rattled off words after words none of which meant anything. And to the docs I had to visit after surgery (and pre), please look me in the eyes, please speak English, not medicates. And please remember: I am not my shoulder; I am a PERSON with a bad shoulder. Treat all of me!
Dianne Cohn Jul 19, 2017 6:07am
Nice article. I talked to my 16 year old niece with Leukemia for years, everyday while she went through chemotherapy. We discussed puppies and flowers and school, things that were dear to her. Giving her encouragement all the way, you can do this, hang in there, send little gift packages. She had enough about the ailment, she wanted some normal life injected into her painful day.
Lynell Pool Jul 19, 2017 1:37am
I am most grateful to have read your story. I just heard about a brave child in my community going through a similar battle. The family is in need of financial help, & started a can drive. I reached out to her mom to see if I could do more..& am meeting them this Thursday. Your tips will help me in talking to her for the first time. Thank you for sharing...& now caring for others!
Elizabeth Jul 19, 2017 12:59am
Wonderful article about talking with kids.... not at them, and truly caring about their thoughts and feelings. Thank you!
Larry Brixius Jul 19, 2017 12:18am
Beautiful! Insightful! And it works beyond medical situations.
Susan Jul 18, 2017 11:40pm
Thank you, Molly and Caring Bridge!!! I am a Child Development Specialist who works with babies with all sorts of medical conditions. I notice different children process things in all sorts of ways, and it is important to remember that they might not be able to understand things in words. It often comes out in their play - in their clinginess, tiredness, aggression, seeming like they are older than they are (but they are still kids). I loved the description of your perceptions of the doctors and medical staff. GOD bless you as you become a nurse and provide the gift of understanding to your patients!
Ginger Hunt Jul 18, 2017 11:25pm
Thank you. Can you write a bit about long term sinckness? My friends son has cancer. He's 21 and he's been sick, or in remission, for about 7 years. I never know if he's sick or doing well at any given time. Is there something I should ask, or just talk about his car he's fixing , and how his girlfriend is doing?
Carolena Larsen Jul 18, 2017 10:45pm
Really good points! Excellent review for parents on how to talk to their kids when they become ill.
Carolena Larsen Jul 18, 2017 10:43pm
Really good points! Excellent review for parents on how to talk to their kids when they're ill.
Penny Scott, RN Jul 18, 2017 10:36pm
Such good reflection from someone who has actually been down the road of health problems at a tender age. Thanks for sharing this! I am currently working as an elementary school nurse and I think with what you have been through you will be able to relate to your patients on a personal level and have good bedside manor. Thanks Molly!
Becky Oldenburg Jul 18, 2017 9:29pm
When working as a EMT-I, when at all possible, I would hold their hands & talk to them at their level not mine. Holding their hands seemed to make them feel like I really wanted to help them. I also had a an incident where we had to transfer a infant to a hospital out of town & the child had a highly contagious condition. They put the baby on the stretcher but when I got in the back with her, I picked her up & held her the whole way to the other hospital & just walked her in. Why? She was only a couple of days old & was so sick. I wanted her to know that she was loved & comforted. That someone really cared since none of the family came with us to drop her off. No one could take my kids anywhere without me going with them. She knew I cared for her.
Eugene Pennington Jul 18, 2017 9:02pm
They are people too,just young people who are afraid and hurting and need compassion,understanding and love!
Gene Jul 18, 2017 9:00pm
So beautiful!
Diana Rizzolo Jul 18, 2017 8:16pm
Just a wonderful article about what is Important to children.
Marietta Stone Jul 17, 2017 5:19pm
Yes. We need to slow down and let the children express themselves however they can and then listen to them and not talk so much ourselves. Observing that in our granddaughter's first days of testing and treatment.
james hribernick Jul 12, 2017 1:52am
I love it ! My 16 year old daughter is intubated and can't communicate very well . Nods yes or no , so when she looks uncomfortable and we start rapid firing questions , she gets really upset and oxygen level drop , heart rate goes up and blood pressure goes up . We need to slow down . I know we want to comfort her but we end up excrabatin the situation .