Helping to heal children worldwide

Sue Heiney is on her last yearly trip to Japan, where she flew halfway around the world to oversee the training for people who are going to be running programs that she has spent her career developing. These programs are designed to facilitate better communication in families where a parent of a young child is undergoing cancer treatments.

Researching what makes good health care programs, and how to operate them efficiently and effectively has been Heiney’s main research focus throughout her career. She is a co-director of the Cancer Survivorship Center and a professor in the College of Nursing. From her publications on helping children cope with parental illnesses, she was approached by the Treehouse Foundation for her assistance in developing a structured program for children who have a parent battling cancer.

Taking what she calls a cookbook approach, she created a program that has grown to more than 60 hospitals in the U.S. and eight others around the world, including Japan. “It’s been fascinating to go to see it in operation and watching it grow from one hospital to so many more,” she says.

The reason for the relatively large number of programs in Japan is because of the high rate of men and women and women of childbearing age who have cancer, Heiney says. Five years ago, a social worker from Japan contacted her for help setting up a program. Now, Heiney is making her last trip and her trainees are now ready to run the programs on their own.

The program consists of six sessions that incorporate experiential play and take the children from a low amount of emotional expression and builds up to the ability to relay more difficult emotions. The goal of the program is greater communication between the parents and their children. Often, she notes, the people learning how to conduct the program come out of it also learning how to better interact with children.

“Children I’ll never see are being touched by the work that I’ve done and that is just beyond belief in terms of reward,” she says. “I never thought that when the program started that it would extend to a language that’s so different … it’s just thrilling.”

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