Bandaged Bear Cup: Meet Sandra Pengilly

Sandra Pengilly works her magic day in and day out at the Children's Hospital at Westmead in her role as head of the child life therapy department.

The department is dedicated to ensuring children are able to remove the pre-existing thoughts of a scary hospital and build an understanding that this is a place where they can come to get happy and healthy.

“Some children are so little that they cannot process everything and their only association with hospitals might have been a grandpa or a grandma passing away, and that’s really hard,” Sandra says.

“Usually people have a negative picture of a hospital so we sort of bring a lot of play into the room, get them to bring in their favourite things from home so that we break down the perception that hospitals have to be a fearful place.”

This is achieved by Sandra and her colleagues through practising child life therapy and music therapy daily with the kids, using a combination of the two to help the children cope with their individual situations.

The role of the music therapist is to provide the children with musical experiences that will be able to assist them to work through their indivdualised situations.

“Some children really settle when they hear music, some children use music to work through their thoughts and some are able to play instruments to release the fears and energy they have inside their bodies," Sandra says.

On the other side are child life therapists, and they add colour and playful equipment to shine some light on what can be a pretty dull experience.

“They are looking at things like making sure there are a lot of play experiences for the children, helping them with there procedures and educating them on what the procedure is about."

“It’s about promoting their self esteem.”

While Sandra admits her job is a lot of fun, the hardest part is breaking the initial tension in the room with the child patients.

“One of the hardest parts is finding that connection – some children will shutdown when they are struggling and their mind says that they can’t deal with this," Sandra says.

“So you keep trying a lot of different ways to find that one things that is going to reach them and that can be really hard because that is our goal, and if we can’t reach them then it gets really difficult and frustrating – because our job is to make them feel so much better.”

One of the most touching experiences Sandra has felt in her fourteen-year career at Westmead was with a young girl who had suffered a significant brain injury and even her mother couldn’t find a connection with her own daughter.

“Her mum would say to me that she doesn’t know how to play with her anymore because she seems so different to her.”

“One day we did something different and I just don’t know what it was, whether we put a bit of glitter in the playdough or chose a song she enjoyed, but we just connected with this little girl and she finally smiled,” Sandra recalls.

“Her mother just went, ‘Wow that’s my little girl, and I can now see her’, and from that moment on they just reconnected and built a beautiful relationship again, you just don’t know, it can be something just so simple that will give that magic smile or it can be something elaborate and you try it all and you see which one works.”

If there is one thing Sandra says will always put a smile on the young kids faces and brighten up the room, it is doing something mischievous or receiving a visit from someone famous.

“Being able to do something that they think isn’t allowed or a bit naughty, like squirting paint over big sheets of paper on the hospital floor when they would normally get in trouble really puts a smile on their face,” she says.

“Or when they meet someone who is pretty famous, like the Eels, and they just go Wow! - when they get to meet someone famous and have their photo taken with them it is really special.”

Sandra’s efforts are a reflection of the hard work put in daily by the hundreds of staff members at Westmead Children’s Hospital, and her touching stories act as an accomplishment to all the young patients she has treated.

The Bandaged Bear Cup is a chance for ANZ Stadium, the Eels and the Bulldogs to say thank you to the incredible staff and volunteers at the Hospital, and the game kicks off on Friday, August 15, at 7.45pm. Click through to buy your tickets!