Once a patient, now an advocate: Laura Zucker shapes local child-life landscape

January 09, 2018
Jonathan and Laura Zucker
Jonathan and Laura Zucker/Photo provided

 Laura Zucker remembers the cold white room and calm-voiced strangers trying to distract her.

“Try blowing up this balloon,” someone offered, but Laura could focus only on the surgery ahead.  Another staff member grabbed Laura’s flailing 9-year-old arms, while someone else brought an anesthesia mask up to her face to begin the quick fade from consciousness.

Laura, now a mother of two, underwent 21 surgeries to repair a cleft lip and palate between childhood and her college years.

“It was a terrifying feeling for me to be in a room full of people I didn’t know, and they knew me clinically,” she recalled. “I didn’t realize at the time that other kids were dealing with that too.”

Laura’s experiences as a young patient in Atlanta informed her undergraduate studies as a psychology major and drove her to take on a leadership role in establishing a child life curriculum in her current home state of South Carolina. Last year her family announced a $5 million contribution to establish a 3,200-square-foot indoor therapeutic play area inside the new MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, in no small part because of Laura’s history. The Jerry and Anita Zucker Family Atrium will provide a home base for MUSC’s child life program, which encourages emotional well-being in health-care settings through play, education and support.

 Anita, Jonathan and Laura Zucker, along with Anita’s mother, Rose Goldberg
Left to right, standing: Anita, Jonathan and Laura Zucker, along with Anita’s mother, Rose Goldberg, celebrate Jonathan’s induction into The Citadel School of Business Hall of Fame in 2016.

Laura’s mother-in-law, Charleston businesswoman Anita Zucker, first became aware of the concept of child life more than 20 years ago, while working as an educator. She collaborated with a child life specialist when one of her elementary school students required hospitalization. Years later, after hearing some of her daughter-in-law’s painful memories, Anita recognized the crucial role a child life program could have played during Laura’s surgeries and recovery. “Because of her life story, we learned a lot,” Anita said recently.

She serves on a national foundation that builds and invests in child life zones within hospitals and understands how successful programs function. Anita and her family focus their philanthropic efforts on children, education and health; championing a world-class atrium aligned with all three priorities.

Years before groundbreaking on the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, now under construction for a 2019 opening, the Zuckers lobbied for a dedicated child life area. “We care very, very deeply about the lives of children and giving them the opportunity to do things that really improve their lives,” Anita said. “This is that kind of space.”

She and Laura have taken an active role in planning the details of the facility. They want existing arts and crafts and teen areas to transfer to the new building, but they also envision additional amenities, including a stage for patients and visiting performers, a calming space for children on the autism spectrum and closed-circuit television to bring interactive games to patients who can’t leave their rooms.

“The atrium we have now is beautiful, captivating and wonderful,” Laura said. “And now we have the chance to really be state-of-the-art. We have the opportunity to make it the focal point of the hospital.”

 Laura graduated from college at the University of Georgia and moved to Atlanta with intentions to work as a pediatric psychologist within a hospital. But at her engagement party in Charleston, she met MUSC’s then-director of child life and started a conversation that shaped her future.

Laura enrolled in a master’s degree program in early childhood education at the College of Charleston and chose electives that would support her plan to work in child life. She wrote papers about teaching in a hospital setting, but after graduation she wanted something more. She requested a meeting with her dean and made a proposal: Why not start a child life program at the college?

Because of existing collaborations between the College of Charleston and MUSC, the program made sense, according to Susan Simonian, who became the college’s first director of the Master of Science in Child Life Program. “What Laura allowed us to do was overcome so many roadblocks, in terms of funding and support to get approval,” Simonian said. “Laura’s advocacy allowed us to build that program.”

This year’s students mark the fourth class in the program, the fourth cohort to receive offers from prestigious pediatric programs around the country, Simonian said. Students often spend their mornings in lecture and their afternoons working on the same concept with patients at MUSC.

By 2022, all child life specialists will need a master’s degree in the field. Thanks to Laura, the College of Charleston offers South Carolina’s only such degree.

 “The most common question is, ‘What is child life?’” Simonian said. “Laura is perhaps one of the strongest community spokespeople for child life, and that’s so powerful.”

Laura’s drive stems not only from her own experiences as a child but from learning from her own children, now 10 and 8. “As a parent now, I can’t imagine what it was like for my parents when I was having all those surgeries,” she said. “I want more people to know about child life. I hope one day that every hospital in the country has some sort of child life program.”

MUSC's program focuses on preventing psychological harm and promoting optimal coping during medical care. That means recognizing when children don’t want to discuss their procedures at length and appreciating the value of play as therapy and creativity for healing, according to Child Life Director Betsy McMillan. 

“Play for a hospitalized child can take on many meanings,” McMillan said. “It can be a way to express emotions and take back control. Toys can be safely used to recreate traumatic experiences and work through stress. Creating art, to a child, is not for appreciating or creating a pretty picture. It is common for patients to scribble to get frustrations out, or paint a beautiful picture and then paint black over it.”

Thanks to Laura’s work at the College of Charleston, aspiring child life specialists now spend 100 hours working with patients at MUSC. “Our program really values and emphasizes strong therapeutic play philosophy, and they get to see it in action,” McMillan said. “When they go out into the world and start working in the field, they take that with them.”

McMillan described the existing child life atrium as a hub from which all programs extend. Given the atrium's more than 30-year history, McMillan said the Zuckers’ gift serves as an opportunity to refresh and reimagine the setting with guidance from Laura – as both a former pediatric patient and founder of the local curriculum.  

“She’s touching countless lives,” McMillan said. “She’s created this opportunity for professionals who are going on to improve the lives of patients and families. As one person, you do what you can with the patients and families in your career, but when you have opportunity to take your skills and passion at developing a program to help others -- that has far-reaching results.”