Play Specialist Lizzie reflects on 25 years at GOSH

19 Dec 2023, 1:16 p.m.

Lizzie smiling to camera while on the ward at GOSH. She's wearing a Christmas hat and standing next to a Christmas tree.

Senior Play Specialist Lizzie Penn started at GOSH as a volunteer in 1998. Twenty-five years on, she’s more passionate than ever about the vital role of play in helping children through their treatment and recovery.

Lizzie arrived at GOSH after seeing an advert in the newspaper asking for Play specialists. She immediately felt a connection with the hospital and soon joined the Play team, before becoming a qualified Play specialist herself.

“I’d previously been a swimming teacher and taught at a children’s holiday camp, and more and more I’d worked with children who needed additional help, for example, children with hearing loss,” she says.

“When I first came to GOSH, I remember there were so many people with loads of knowledge I could learn from. I fell in love with the place … I think anybody who works here understands what makes this place so special. You go home feeling inspired every day.”

The power of play

GOSH Charity funds a team of 48 Play workers and specialists at GOSH, who carry out around 16,000 one-on-one sessions with patients each year. This includes everything from role play and drawing to practicing procedures on toys to help children understand their treatment.

Lizzie started her career in outpatients, assisting children who needed to have blood taken. Today, she works on Leopard Ward, where she supports respiratory patients and children on the Sleep Unit.

“Our role as Play specialists is to be able to give the child some control back,” she says. “I can’t change that a procedure is going to happen, but I can help them when it does happen. And we can make a plan that suits them.

“We also try and provide some normality. Everything might be going on medically, but it’s about the child – we always remember that. If a child is having a bad day or is upset and you go into their room and make that child smile, the family also see their child smile.”

Thank you cards and drawings from patients

Thank you cards for Lizzie from patients.

Changing lives

Lizzie has helped thousands of children and families during her time at GOSH. She says the best part of her job is forming connections.

“I had a 12-year-old girl who was terrified of needles, but she needed her bloods taken so she could have really important surgery. We set up weekly appointments where we worked through her fears using play, for example using a model hand to take blood. Because I was privileged to spend that time with her, she built up her trust in me, and because we practiced it, she knew what to expect.

“She came back after her surgery with a bunch of flowers for me. The surgery was a success, and it was able to go ahead because she overcame her phobia. I felt like I'd really changed someone’s life … It feels special going home knowing I’ve done something or made something better for someone.”

Christmas at GOSH

Lizzie standing in front of Christmas presents for patients at GOSH

Lizzie during the festive season at GOSH.

This year will be Lizzie’s 26th Christmas at GOSH. She says it is a “wonderful” time of year, with the Play team bringing lots of festive fun onto the wards for those children who are too poorly to go home.

“We want to get a child home for Christmas, but if a child is here, thanks to donations we’re able to make sure they have stockings and lots of presents on Christmas Day, which is absolutely amazing,” Lizzie says. “We’re also lucky to have people come in to entertain the children, and I often dress up as an elf.”

Lizzie still receives Christmas cards from families she first met decades ago, and one patient sends her a handmade decoration each year to hang on her tree. She says the special thing about Christmas at GOSH is seeing loved ones celebrating together.

“The fact that GOSH Charity can offer accommodation to families so they can be together, that’s what you want, as that’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it?”

Watch our video to see Lizzie share five of her favourite GOSH memories.

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