Amie Lusk: Full-Time Child Life Specialist, Part-Time Elf

Child Life specialist Amie Lusk blows some distracting bubbles for Christian Lybbert on a difficult day while his sister, Izabella, watches.
Child Life specialist Amie Lusk blows some distracting bubbles for patient Christian Lybbert on a difficult day while his sister, Izabella, watches.

Amie Lusk couldn’t have known it at the time, but she started on her career path the day she got caught sleeping in the book nook of her fourth grade classroom.

For weeks, she had been hiding her fatigue and sneaking naps in the nook. But that day a classmate found her, woke her up and marched her to the school nurse, who sent her home with a fever.

Lusk’s doctor ordered a blood test, and her mom got an alarming message when the results came in: “Take Amie to the Hematology/Oncology Clinic at Seattle Children’s.”

On March 26, 1992, Lusk, then 10, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). After two years of treatment at Seattle Children’s and a complete recovery, she had two important pieces of self-knowledge: First, she was resilient — if she could bounce back from cancer, she could stare down all manner of other challenges. Second, she wanted to work at Seattle Children’s when she grew up.

“For some people, cancer is the worst thing in the world — it’s horrible and even life-ending,” she said. “For me, it shaped the course of my life.”

Nearly 24 years later, resilience remains one of Lusk’s core characteristics. It’s something she calls upon every day in her work as a child life specialist at Seattle Children’s, and a quality she tries to instill in patients and families.

“My favorite part of this job is how children constantly surprise me with what they are able to overcome,” she said. “I was the same kind of kid.”

Lusk doesn’t necessarily share her personal health history with the patients and families she works with, but her experience shines through anyway.

“I have days when I feel like there’s a reason I’m still alive,” said Lusk. “There’s a reason I’m doing this job.”

‘That’s exactly what I want to do!’

Amie mid-hair-loss in June, 1992.
Amie mid-hair-loss in June, 1992.
Although Lusk always knew where she wanted to work, it took her a little longer to decide on the what.

She was in college and volunteering at Camp Goodtimes — a camp for kids with cancer that she attended as a child — when she first heard about child life specialists, professionals who help patients and families cope with the experience of being in the hospital.

“I was like, ‘What!? That’s exactly what I want to do!,’” she said. “I literally came home, woke up my mom and said, ‘We need to change all my classes!’”

The job description reminded her of many of the nurses she encountered at Seattle Children’s. In addition to taking care of her physical needs, she said, nurses helped her cope with everything from fears about her illness, to worries about her parents, to managing painful procedures.

“I knew I wanted to spend all my time meeting the psychosocial needs of patients and their families,” she said. “That’s exactly what a child life specialist gets to do.”

In 2005, Lusk graduated from college and returned home to Issaquah, Wash. as a fully qualified child life specialist. She quickly found a job at Seattle Children’s — not in her chosen field, but as a scheduler for a clinic she knew well, the Hematology/Oncology Clinic.

About a year later, she landed her dream job as a child life specialist. Now nine years in, she says, the work continues to surpass her expectations.

Meet Elf Amie

Amie at Seattle Children’s with Doug Taliaferro, Christmas 2008.
Amie at Seattle Children’s with Doug Taliaferro, Christmas 2008.

While Lusk loves her job every day, her favorite day at Seattle Children’s is Christmas. “I know it sounds hokey,” she said, “but Christmas here is magical.”

Santa’s visit is a big part of that magic, and Lusk often spends Christmas Day as his advance elf, scoping the route and checking to make sure patients are up for a visit.

“Most parents don’t expect to spend Christmas in the hospital, especially parents of newborns,” she said. “There are a lot of happy tears when Santa shows up.”

One of her favorite things about Christmas, said Lusk, is working alongside Doug and Lisa Taliaferro and their family, who spend every Christmas at the hospital. Doug Taliaferro and Lusk go way back — all the way back to when Lusk was patient here and Taliaferro was an orderly.

“I wouldn’t work here if I hadn’t had such an amazing experience here when I was a kid,” Lusk said. “It’s remarkable to be able to work side-by-side with someone who helped take such great care of me.”

The Santa team helps keep the amazing experiences coming on Christmas. “Last year, we missed a 7-year-old patient who was in the operating room when we passed through his unit,” she said. “During Santa’s lunch break, we got a call asking if there was any way he could make it back to visit this boy. Of course, Doug said yes. The boy kept yelling, ‘I didn’t miss Santa!’ It really made our day.”

Polar Place Market

This week, you’ll find Lusk at the Polar Place Market where she’s helping parents and caregivers of Seattle Children’s inpatients find just the right gifts for their children.

Like most retail stores at this time of year, the market — a pop-up shop in the River zone — is stocked with new games, toys, books, gift cards and other surprises for kids. What sets it apart is what’s missing: price tags. Everything in the store is donated, and nobody who shops there pays a cent.

The Child Life Department manages and staffs the store for three days only: Dec. 22, Dec. 23 and Dec. 24.

The market offers parents more than gifts for their kids — it also provides a sliver of normalcy in a situation that is anything but normal.

“Parents often tell me that they don’t know what their job is while their child is in the hospital,” she said. “I tell every family I meet that they’re the expert on their child. They’re certainly the experts when it comes to shopping for their child – nobody does it better than parents or caregivers.”