MONTREAL -- When they first started frequenting the Montreal Children’s Hospital more than eight decades ago, they were known as ‘play ladies’ - volunteers, who kept the young patients occupied and distracted during their stays.

Not only was the initiative well received when it launched in 1936, it also turned out to be pioneering, laying the foundation for the first Child Life Services Department in North America, now celebrating its 85th anniversary.

“We’re very, very proud to see that 85 years ago the Children’s knew the importance of using play in a therapeutic way to help the children cope,” said Sabrina Drudi, the department’s coordinator.

“We don’t have control over illness, we don’t have control over when we have to come to the hospital but as child life specialists we strive to provide support and preparation and accompaniment to the families,” when their children are sick, Drudi said.

Montreal Child Live Services Department

With all that responsibility, they’re certainly not called ‘play ladies’ anymore.

Today, the 12 member team at the MUHC’s pediatric institution are all professionals, with various academic backgrounds, including psychology and early childhood development.

To make sure everyone follows best practices, the staff members participate in a hospital internship program that leads to assessment and certification by the Association of Child Life Professionals.

“It’s not a very well known profession, it’s very unique... and we feel it’s one of our great assets here,” said Anna Paliotti, a 15 year veteran of the department.

One of the mottos that guides them in their work comes from an early leader in the field, Kathie Moffat, who died in 2002. She said “health care experience can last a lifetime.”

What that means in part, is that by surrounding the children undergoing treatments with support, “we can really try and foster resilience,” said Paliotti.

That is aided by providing opportunities for play, even as the children are being gently educated about what lies ahead in the hospital.

“Play is the language of’s how they express themselves,” said Paliotti. She said they’re patients of course, “but they’re children first and we want to promote their development.”

Montreal Children's Hospital has a storied history

Drudi accompanies the children who need to have surgery. She meets them in pre-op for mock medical sessions in a mock operating room bed - even showing them how an anesthesia mask fits easily over the face of a teddy bear, to dispel any concerns.

“They choose the flavour of the mask, they decide what they want to dream about, they choose what their special hospital buddy is,” a favorite stuffed animal for example, Drudi explains. Then, she makes it happen.

Her reward comes when she hears the child say, “I’m ready for my surgery, I can do this. That’s why we’re here.” she said.

Just last week, Paliotti saw a young girl in the hematology-oncology department where she works, who had to have a second tube inserted.

Paliotti says she engaged the child in some symbolic play using dolls, to help her mentally prepare for the procedure.

“The doll that I had, asked her, 'well, how did you feel about that, and she answered with her little doll, it’s okay I was brave.' So really, it's just to allow that expression and to see how resilient they are.

“It feels like a privilege to walk alongside these children and their families in such difficult circumstances. And to be a part of what makes it less difficult is more than I could have asked for in a career,” said Paliotti.

Montreal Children's Hospital play room

Drudi says her career, “is a vocation.”

When the pandemic forced them to halt certain programs, the team adjusted, the pair said.

They could no longer gather the young patients together to socialize, but they put their heads together to come up with new ideas, creating individual play and art kits.

They set up virtual parties where important VIP guests, like princes, princesses, superheroes and even a Habs player made special appearances.

And the annual and much anticipated teddy bear clinic now goes room to room in a travelling teddy bear ambulance, instead of being held in the P.K. Subban Atrium as usual.

85 years later, the Montreal Children's Hospital

Pandemic or not, with 85 years of history and service to uphold, they say they will weather the storm, putting children and families first.