Annika Johanson ’12: Helping Children and Families Overcome Life’s Biggest Challenges

Posted on October 6th, 2014 by

Annika Johanson works with a patient at Children’s Hospital.

Annika Johanson works with a patient at Children’s Hospital.

When children suffer from medical conditions that require hospitalization, it can be a challenging and emotional time for the child and the child’s family. It’s the kind of environment Gustavus alumna Annika Johnason ’12 witnesses every day.

Johanson is a Child Life Specialist for both Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, and Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare. She is charged with helping children and their families overcome life’s most challenging events.

Child life specialists promote effective coping through play, preparation, education, and self-expression activities. They provide emotional support for families, and encourage optimum development of children facing a broad range of challenging experiences. They provide information, support, and guidance to parents, siblings and other family members. They also play a vital role in educating caregivers, administrators, and the general public about the needs of children under stress.

“One of things we do is help explain upcoming hospital procedures or new diagnoses to kids in a way that they can understand,” Johanson said. “Oftentimes I try to engage younger kids in medical play to ease their fears about medical equipment. Some of the procedures kids have to go through can be confusing or traumatic, and step-by-step preparation can help them cope a lot better.”

Johanson says that it is also her responsibility to offer a distraction for kids who are facing an upcoming medical procedure. Through art and play, she aims to normalize the hospital setting and ease kids’ fears while they are at the hospital. While it’s not unusual for Johanson to witness families struggle through feelings of sadness, fear, and hopelessness, she recognizes the importance of her job.

Johanson at Machu Picchu in Peru.

Johanson at Machu Picchu in Peru.

“I get to see firsthand the difference my line of work makes in the lives of these patients and families and I get to be a part of their medical journey, no matter how big or small it might be,” Johanson said. “When explaining something to a child, I love seeing the light bulb of understanding click. The incredible resiliency and courage so many patients and their families find in the midst of hardship is inspiring to me and I am honored to be a part of it.”

Johanson majored in psychology at Gustavus and then went on to complete a 600-hour child life internship at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital in Knoxville. She enjoyed her experience in the psychology department, but also acknowledges how the liberal arts education that she received is benefitting her today.

“Gustavus gave me a well-rounded view of the world, and enhanced my ability to think outside of the box. While not all of my classes were directly related to the field I’m in, they still broadened my perspective,” Johanson said. “Most of my classes at Gustavus were smaller class sizes and discussion-based—something that sharpened my listening skills and helped me appreciate different viewpoints. I work with people of many different cultures and backgrounds, something that Gustavus has prepared me well for.”

Johanson has also come to appreciate the time she was able to spend learning under Gustavus’s dedicated faculty.

“I had many psychology classes with Barbara Simpson, who always made herself available to me when I had questions. She was always so approachable and made time for me when I needed it,” Johanson said. “Richard Martin helped me organize my Interim Career Exploration of Child Life during my senior year. The few classes I took with Betsy Byers (Art & Art History) stretched my skills and creativity, and always forced me to think outside the box. Mary Solberg’s “Ethics and Medicine” class is one I’ll never forget; I’ve carried so much of what I learned in that class into what I do now in my job.”

In addition to her positive academic experience, Johanson’s Gustavus journey was also significantly impacted by her involvement in Prepare Ministries and a personal volunteer trip she decided to take to Peru during the spring semester of her sophomore year.

Johanson and her Prepare housemates during a neon-themed substance-free spring rave.

Johanson and her Prepare housemates during a neon-themed substance-free spring rave.

Prepare Ministries is one of the many faith-based groups on campus that students can join. Johanson became involved with Prepare near the end of her freshman year and then lived in the Prepare House during her junior and senior years.

“Prepare helped foster my faith and provided fellowship with great people,” Johanson said. “Dave Olson, the leader of Prepare, was a great spiritual mentor to not only me, but many of the students who attended as well.”

Johanson’s trip to Peru came at a time when she says she found herself confused and uncertain about which direction she was going in life. While feeling “stuck in a rut”, she decided to take a semester off from college and volunteer her time to “The Inca Project” for three months. She lived on a small, self-sustaining farm in a small mountain town. While there, she helped farm the land, built roads, built desks for local schools, and helped local archaeologists map Incan ruins.

“I learned so much about different people and cultures—it was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself,” Johanson said. “We lived day to day—there was no long-term planning. It wasn’t easy, but I’m grateful for that experience.”

While in Peru, there was no typical day for Johanson and that is similar to her job today. She works in many areas of the hospital including the E.R., pre-surgery center, radiology, hematology/oncology clinic, as well as some inpatient units.

“I pretty much have the best job ever,” Johanson said. “Kids are just so much fun to work with!”



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