Dr. Daniel Larrow visits with Maggie Hall, a child he started seeing through telemedicine appointments at the Highlands Center, at the Kentucky Clinic.

UK pediatrician provides specialized support for children with autism spectrum disorders

Amy Hall celebrated her son’s first haircut appointment and the moment her daughter permitted a hug. For parents of children with autism spectrum disorders, even small gestures and slight behavioral changes count as developmental breakthroughs.

Hall’s son, Jacob, who was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at age 2, once spiraled into emotional outbursts when anyone tried to touch his hair. Hall and behavioral therapists at the Highlands Center for Autism in Prestonsburg, Ky., rehearsed Jacob’s first visit to the barbershop. Every day for several weeks, Jacob practiced getting his hair washed in a bathtub at the school. He took a field trip to the barbershop and climbed into the barber’s chair. He even had the chance to inspect the barber’s combs and shears before the big day.

Maggie, Hall’s second child, was diagnosed with an autism disorder at 19 months. She went through a stage avoiding touch, even embraces from her parents. Early intervention and repetitive behavioral training helped Maggie overcome her fear and warm up to cuddling with her parents.

“I think of how difficult some of those months were for us, and how far they’ve come,” Hall said.

Hall credits much of her children’s progress to an intervention spearheaded by UK pediatrician Dr. Daniel Larrow. Through an innovative telemedicine clinic, Larrow and his team at the Kentucky Children’s Hospital give kids like Jacob and Maggie access to the specialized care they need, no matter where they live. Larrow meets with patients and their families via a live telemedicine consultation and offers advice and guidance for overcoming behavioral challenges.

“Having Dr. Larrow there was so convenient,” Hall said. “The kids are comfortable and they are in a familiar setting. He could very clearly see some of the behaviors and concerns that we were experiencing.”

Removing barriers to clinical expertise

After Jacob was diagnosed in 2011, Hall had applied for a scholarship at the Highlands Center, the only developmental learning program east of Louisville in the state based on Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). ABA is a scientifically proven method for teaching children basic and complex communication skills, social skills and other skills needed for an independent life.

After Jacob received the scholarship, Hall had relocated with the children to Floyd County, moving in with her in-laws, while her husband remained in Lexington to continue his work. Less than two years later, Maggie received a scholarship to enter the program. In addition to spending the weekdays apart from her husband, Hall had to drive her children three hours both ways to Cincinnati for appointments with a pediatric developmental-behavioral specialist.

It wasn’t until Larrow introduced the telemedicine clinic in partnership with the Highlands Center that things became easier, Hall said.

Larrow, who specializes in developmental-behavioral pediatrics, first observed the Hall children’s behavioral challenges through a computer monitor at the Kentucky Clinic. The telemedicine consultation provided the Hall family a comfortable introduction to Larrow and KCH family support specialist and patient navigator Melanie Tyner-Wilson, a mother of an adult child with an autism spectrum disorder.

The online meetings allow Larrow to gather information about a child’s history and developmental barriers and recommend further testing at the center, if needed, before examining the children in-person. He and Tyner-Wilson travel to Prestonsburg once a month to provide clinical consultations with established families whose children attend the Highlands Center, as well as other children and their families from Eastern Kentucky.

“The treatment for autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders is mostly specialized instruction, the teaching of specific skills that should be present but that aren’t, or to replace bad behavior with more acceptable behavior,” Larrow said. “A lot of times the parents don’t know how to access it or find this specialized therapy, or how to get insurance to pay for it.”

Building a ‘greenhouse’

Larrow came to Kentucky Children’s Hospital in 2013 after working for an organization that operated three developmental schools for autistic children in rural Vermont. A proponent of early behavioral intervention, Larrow urges families he sees in clinic to integrate consistent behavioral learning into their children’s daily lives.Through many years working with children on the autism spectrum, Larrow adopted a practice philosophy emphasizing control and conditioning of the environment to promote positive behavioral development.

Larrow’s approach likens children on the autism spectrum to orchids as opposed to dandelions, or their normally developing counterparts. While most children are developmentally conditioned to adapt to their environment, children with an autism spectrum disorder, like fickle orchids, are not adaptable and need a special environment, or “greenhouse.” The orchid theory holds that children on the autism spectrum can flourish when their environment is best suited to their developmental and learning abilities. As orchids, these children must also be taught to function in the “dandelion world.”

“If you can figure out the right greenhouse for an orchid, they can thrive and potentially excel,” Larrow said. “If they are not in the right environment, they don’t do well.”

Tyner-Wilson said Larrow’s orchid metaphor transforms how parents think about their child’s disorder. Larrow encourages caregivers to immerse their children in nurturing learning environments with consistent practices, adjusting the child’s environment to find a formula that promotes positive development.

“When you hear him call their child an orchid, you can see a change in their faces as it’s a potential positive for them,” Tyner-Wilson said. “Your child has these needs and has challenging behaviors, and, yes, they need special support, but with the right greenhouse, the child can become an opportunity, not a problem.”

‘Happiness out of little things’

Ashley Ratliff, director of the Highlands Clinic, said the telemedicine arrangement with Larrow provides families with a level of clinical expertise that isn’t accessible in rural areas. Their availability eliminates the burden of travel for families already struggling to find resources and opportunities to foster behavioral development.

“They are providing a service in this area that prevents families from having to drive all the way to Lexington or farther away,” Ratliff said. “When you talk about long-distance transportation with a child with autism, it can be very difficult for parents to manage.”

Amy Hall can attest to the advantages of adjusting the environments to accommodate her children’s behavioral challenges. After making significant progress at the Highlands Center, the family returned to Lexington in 2015. Both children see Larrow at the Kentucky Clinic and receive routine behavioral therapy at separate programs in Lexington. Jacob recently completed his first season playing on a Miracle League baseball team and Maggie, who will begin kindergarten this fall, participates in the Chance to Dance program.

“We recognize our life is not typical, not normal, but we feel like in a lot of ways we get to celebrate more,” Hall said. “We get more happiness out of little things we would have taken for granted.”


Next steps:

In recognition of her work at UK CTAC, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has appointed Ginny Sprang as a member of its steering committee.

UK leader in child trauma appointed to national steering committee

Ginny Sprang, PhD

Ginny Sprang, PhD, professor of psychiatry and a co-founder of the UK Center on Trauma and Children (CTAC), has fought child maltreatment for almost two decades. In recognition of the work she has done as executive director of CTAC, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has appointed Sprang to its steering committee for the next two years.

Sprang was invited to the NCTSN’s steering committee because of her dedication to improving clinical services for children experiencing trauma. She said the appointment will only help strengthen CTAC’s role as a national leader in the field.

“Raising the standard of care is very much in line with the goals of the center and the UK College of Medicine,” Sprang said.

Researching and improving care for 18 years

Beginning in 1999, a series of research and clinical projects were funded at UK to understand child maltreatment and improve the care these victims receive. Eight years later, the UK Board of Trustees voted to establish a center that would encourage scientists and clinicians to conduct clinical research and provide evidence-based services to children and families who have been exposed to a wide range of traumatic events. Since then, the CTAC has been a leader in studying and treating children who have experienced trauma.

The NCTSN, established by Congress in 2000, includes 79 centers of excellence that work to implement policy, improve clinical care and develop products. Ten years ago, CTAC was awarded membership in the network.

Bringing the latest innovations to the Commonwealth

Two living laboratories in UK CTAC enable clinicians and researchers to test and adopt clinical strategies for reducing the harm associated with violence exposure. The assessment lab includes families referred through the court system or child protective services. The federally funded treatment lab brings the latest innovations in child trauma treatment to Kentucky and provides a venue for investigating the harms associated with specific types of traumatic experiences.

Assessing the impact of traumatic events on children isn’t the only kind of research currently being conducted at CTAC. The center also runs a Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) Practice Lab, aimed at improving the work environment for care providers. STS is caused by frequent indirect exposure to traumatic material and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in trauma providers. The STS Practice Lab is a place where CTAC can develop and test new tools and interventions to address STS.

“Raising the standard of care for traumatized children mandates that the child-serving workforce be protected as well,” Sprang said.


Next steps:

  • Find out how research being done at UK CTAC is helping combat child trauma and improve care.
  • Learn more about the Kentucky Children’s Hospital, which provides more than 30 advanced sub-specialty programs in children’s health.
DanceBlue has always been "For The Kids." "For The Kids" may seem like three simple words, but for the DanceBlue community, those words mean everything.

DanceBlue celebrates more than a decade of dancing ‘for the kids’

DanceBlue celebrated its 12th-annual 24-hour dance marathon this past weekend, raising nearly $1.8 million “for the kids.” The group’s slogan is just three simple words, but for the DanceBlue community, “for the kids” means everything.

DanceBlue is UK’s largest student-run philanthropy and has raised more than $11.5 million since 2006 in support of cancer patients, their families and cancer research.

Thanks to 12 years of DanceBlue’s fundraising, UK opened the new, state-of-the-art DanceBlue Kentucky Children’s Hospital Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic earlier this month. In addition to fundraising, DanceBlue students also volunteer about 1,000 hours in the clinic each year, bringing smiles and laughter to patients and families.

“The students have a real commitment to our patients,” said Dr. Lars Wagner, chief of pediatric hematology and oncology. “They build relationships, then they work hard to raise funds to help support these very kids that they’re getting to know and care for.”

Rachel O’Farrell, a social worker in the DanceBlue Clinic, agreed and said the support patients and their families get from DanceBlue students is invaluable in their treatment journey.

“I think it’s huge to see what it means to patients and families to know that there’s a whole community standing behind them when they’re going through such a difficult experience,” O’Farrell said. “Many of our families feel very lonely, but when you know that there are 900 to 1,000 students dancing and standing for 24 hours to encourage and support your family  I think that holds a lot of meaning.”

Watch the video below to learn more about DanceBlue’s mission and how the group has helped improve cancer care for kids across the Commonwealth.


Next steps:

This year's DanceBlue event raised nearly $2 million in support of pediatric cancer, with part of those funds going toward the new DanceBlue Clinic.

DanceBlue raises nearly $1.8 million for pediatric cancer patients

Nearly 1,000 UK students spent 24 hours on their feet this weekend, dancing as part of the UK DanceBlue Marathon. It was the culmination and celebration of a yearlong fundraising effort that raised almost $1.8 million for pediatric cancer patients and their families.

DanceBlue the largest student-run philanthropy organization at UK  celebrates its yearly fundraising efforts at the DanceBlue Marathon, an all-day, no-sitting, no-sleeping event that honors those affected by childhood cancer. This year’s celebration took place on Feb. 25 and 26 and included a family talent show featuring children from the clinic and an emotional memorial hour to remember those who lost their battle with cancer.

Since it began in 2006, DanceBlue has raised more than $11.5 million for the Golden Matrix Fund and the DanceBlue Kentucky Children’s Hospital Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic, which is named in honor of the group. DanceBlue’s fundraising efforts over the last several years helped support the renovation of the new DanceBlue Clinic, which opened in early February.

“For the last 365 days, students at the University of Kentucky have been on a mission to fight pediatric cancer,” said Richie Simpson, the overall chair of DanceBlue. “They have come together to be a part of something so much greater than any one individual, and for the last 24 hours they have literally taken a stand against cancer. They refused to accept the realities of cancer, and they showed the families in the DanceBlue Clinic they are not alone and will never be alone as they face some of the toughest circumstances life can throw at you. It has been an honor to stand alongside students at the university who are so committed to making a difference and changing the world.”


Next steps:

The new $1.6 million DanceBlue Kentucky Children's Hospital (KCH) Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic transports families to a beachside getaway.

DanceBlue celebrates opening of new pediatric cancer clinic

With a sailboat full of toys, murals of blue skies over the sea and a lighthouse illuminated with all colors of the rainbow, the new $1.6 million DanceBlue Kentucky Children’s Hospital (KCH) Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic transports families to a beachside getaway.

The expanded beach-themed clinic, supported by funds raised through the UK DanceBlue organization and dance marathon event, is designed to enhance resources, privacy and care for pediatric patients and families battling cancer. The student-run organization raised more than $1.3 million to upgrade the clinic, with additional support from donors inspired by the DanceBlue movement.

‘The transformational power of we’

On Monday, UK President Eli Capilouto, DanceBlue student-volunteers, KCH staff, and patients and their families celebrated the grand opening of the clinic during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Capilouto commended the efforts of DanceBlue students, donors and organizers who pledged to upgrade the facility for Kentucky’s youngest cancer patients.

“With the dedication of the DanceBlue Kentucky Children’s Hospital Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic we acknowledge the transformational power of ‘we’ and the enduring dedication of UK students to build a better world,” Capilouto said. “The new clinic better positions the faculty, staff and clinicians responsible for caring for the strongest among us  the kids for whom nearly 1,000 UK students will stand and dance in a couple weeks. Our students provide the constant reminder that, together, we will fight ‘For the Kids’ until the battle is won.”

Equipped with state-of-the-art technology

Relocated to Kentucky Children’s Hospital, the new clinic boasts more than 6,000 square feet, doubling the space of the former outpatient clinic located at the Kentucky Clinic. The waiting room features an interactive lighthouse, with a touchpad that allows children to choose the color of the light, as well as a 300-gallon fish aquarium. The clinic is furnished with spacious exam rooms, four private infusion rooms for chemotherapy and three semi-private infusion rooms designated for specific age groups.

The clinic’s beach theme complements the Ocean Pod, where DanceBlue patients stay during inpatient treatment. Consistent with the theme, DanceBlue volunteers and clinic staff can leave encouraging messages for patients in a wall compartment resembling a “message in a bottle.” The waiting room also includes three computer stations where patients can check-in for appointments. The new clinic houses a separate phlebotomy and port access station, as well as an exclusive pharmacy and child life coordinator.

“Our new DanceBlue Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic has been transformational for cancer care at Kentucky Children’s Hospital,” said Dr. Lars Wagner, chief of pediatric hematology and oncology. “Our patients and their families now have a warm and spacious clinic with private and semi-private infusion rooms. My staff and I are so grateful to DanceBlue.”

People make the place

Nine-year-old patient Ryan Cremeens has received cancer treatment at the DanceBlue Clinic since June 2016. The Cremeens family recently transitioned from the old clinic to the new facility. While they appreciate the new clinic features, Eric Cremeens, Ryan’s dad, believes it’s the people at the clinic the doctors, nurses and staff who make his son’s experience meaningful.

“It obviously takes a special person to do the jobs they do at the clinic,” Eric Cremeens said. “We are more than blessed to have Dr. Wagner during our visits. He has been a calming, steady voice throughout the entire treatment process. The nurses and staff are also incredible. By the second visit everyone knew Ryan’s name and recognized his face, and it has made the whole process much better.”

Wagner has not only impacted Eric Cremeens, but Ryan has also taken favor to him, referring to him as the “Wag-man.”

“Ryan feels comfortable going there and he loves Dr. Wagner,” Cremeens said. “Dr. Wagner is more than a top-notch physician  he’s just a great person.”

Ryan Cremeens also benefits from the DanceBlue student-volunteers who serve in the clinic during his visits. He enjoys seeing DanceBlue student-volunteer Bryan Adams, who also served as his Indian Summer Camp counselor.

“Every time I see Ryan and his family, it makes my day,” Adams said. “He is filled with so much joy and he makes everyone who is around him smile and laugh.”

The largest philanthropic event at UK

DanceBlue, the largest student-run philanthropy organization at the University of Kentucky, has made a profound impact on the children treated in the DanceBlue Clinic since its inception in 2006. The annual DanceBlue Marathon benefits the Golden Matrix Fund and, in turn, the DanceBlue Clinic. DanceBlue has raised more than $9.8 million for children and pledged more than $1 million to support the new clinic in 2013.

“It is truly special with all the new and exciting things happening at UK, for our students to be able to say they built a new facility too,” said Richie Simpson, the overall chair of DanceBlue. “It is a testament to the hard work of students throughout the past 12 years, and a commitment to continue fighting for the kids in our clinic.”

Ryan is expected to complete chemotherapy on March 30. The DanceBlue 2017 Marathon will take place the weekend of Feb. 25 and 26 from 8 p.m. Saturday through 8 p.m. Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. The marathon is open to the public from start to finish. For more information about DanceBlue, registration information or to support its efforts, visit danceblue.org.


Watch our video for a tour inside the new DanceBlue Clinic.


Next steps:

  • Learn more about the pediatric cancer care provided at the DanceBlue Clinic.
  • Interested in donating to the Kentucky Children’s Hospital? Visit Give to KCH to learn more about ways you can support our mission.
The rate of Americans with a life-threatening peanut allergy has greatly risen. But avoiding peanuts might not be the best idea when it comes to prevention.

Careful exposure to peanuts may prevent allergies, experts say

George J. Fuchs III, MD

The rate of Americans suffering from food allergies, including a life-threatening peanut allergy, has dramatically increased in the past few decades. But avoiding peanuts entirely might not be the best idea when it comes to prevention.

New evidence shows peanut exposure can be OK

Peanut allergies are the leading cause of death caused by food-induced asphyxia, although death from a peanut allergy is rare. Peanut allergies typically begin during early childhood and persist into adulthood. For years, pediatricians recommended parents proceed with caution when introducing potentially allergenic foods. They advised a strict elimination of peanut products from the at-risk child’s diet until 3 years of age. But now experts point to evidence that early and frequent exposure to peanuts can prevent a lifelong peanut allergy.

Kentucky Children’s Hospital pediatric gastroenterologist Dr. George Fuchs served on an expert panel convened by the National Institutes of Health to address the prevention and management of peanut allergies in children. In a reversal of former medical recommendations, the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease approved the guidelines advising the deliberate inclusion, instead of exclusion, of age-appropriate peanut products in the infant diet.

A panel of experts re-examines an old way of thinking

The panel, which released its guidelines in January, cited high-quality research indicating that children at risk for peanut allergy who consume peanut-containing products early in life are actually less, not more, likely to develop an allergy. In the landmark Learning Early About Peanut (LEAP) allergy trial, fewer than 2 percent of children given peanut protein as part of their diet developed a peanut allergy at 60 months of age.

In contrast, 13 percent of children in a peanut-avoidance group developed a peanut allergy. The panel recommended children prone to peanut sensitivity, such as those already diagnosed with an egg allergy or eczema, begin to receive age-appropriate peanut-containing foods as early as four to six months of age. The recommendations advise those children without a predisposition to food allergies receive peanut products at the same time they transition to solid foods.

UK doctor presents key points on preventing peanut allergies

Fuchs, who serves as the chief of pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at KCH, presented key points from the new guidelines to colleagues at the American Society of Nutrition Symposium in December. Fuchs said early introduction of peanut products enhances tolerance and reduces the risk of a peanut allergy. Avoidance of peanuts only increases the likelihood of a permanent peanut allergy.

“For the past few decades, pediatricians have been telling parents to eliminate peanut products from their baby’s diet, when avoidance may actually be the root of the allergy problem,” Fuchs said. “Our panel found introducing peanuts early on was the single-most effective step in preventing an allergy. There is a window of opportunity to teach the body’s immune system to accept that food.”

The authors anticipate the new guidelines will reduce the prevalence of peanut allergies in the U.S. Read the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease’s new recommendations for parents and caregivers here.


Next steps:

Pediatric surgeon tells little Connor’s story of hope

Written by Dr. Ana Ruzic, a pediatric surgeon at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

Let me tell you a true story of hope. It may be difficult to read, but I promise you nowhere as difficult as being its main character. This is Connor’s story.

Nearly one year ago, Connor Stacy went home from the Kentucky Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, snuggled in his mom’s arms, too small to fit in his elf hat but nearly three times as big as the day he was born. Just recently, his mom sent me a photo of Connor wearing that famous hat. He is getting close to walking and speaking. To anyone who took care of him in his six-month NICU stay, he is the definition of hope.

Connor Stacy and his elf hat.

A premature birth, then more complications

I met Connor and his family in August 2015. They had already lived through a hailstorm of trauma, experiencing a premature birth and the subsequent marathon of the neonatal ICU.

For a NICU family, meeting a surgeon is never an easy feat. While some of these consults involve more benign needs, such as reliable IV access or an expected hernia that can wait for a repair, all too often they indicate a need for an emergent operation. Along with our neonatologists, my three surgery colleagues and I carry the privilege and the burden of meeting NICU families on a sudden, unexpected and very bad day. And on the day I met him, Connor went from well to critically ill in a matter of hours.

In the morning, he was eating and growing, and by the early afternoon, he was in advanced stages of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a severe intestinal infection often seen in premature neonates. By the early evening, he was in multi-system organ failure. More than half of babies with NEC do not make it, despite aggressive management and all the advancements of modern medicine.

Treatment for Connor

Our first step was to remove the damaged portions of Connor’s small intestine. Connor weighed only 1,200 grams and was so fragile we could not move him to the operating room. Instead, we did the operation in the NICU. In the course of the following five days, he underwent three major operations. And somewhere in the midst of it all, his kidneys stopped making urine.

When the kidneys fail, the body fills up with toxins and fluid and their function is replaced by dialysis. The dialysis continues until the renal function recovers or further

treatment becomes futile. Futility is the antithesis of hope, but we have the responsibility to our families, our patients and each other to recognize that point of no return.

I didn’t know if we would reach that with Connor, other than to tell his parents we would “keep going until we were no longer doing treatments for him, but to him.” That is not my quote, by the way.  It was taught to me by Dr. Joseph Iocono, some years ago when I was his resident. He is now my boss, my colleague and my mentor.

Thinking outside the box

Connor needed dialysis, but unfortunately, we don’t have a great way to dialyze 1,200-gram babies. With Connor, our care team had to improvise, think outside of the box and believe in something far greater than each of us individually: science, divinity, neither or both. Above all, we had to rely on faith in each other.

As joined as we are by this story, we are all different in the ways we approach medicine and patient care. We are guided by our own stories, each as different as the next. We do not always agree and that is exactly what Connor needed – for us to challenge one another, our biases and our previous outcomes. This is also the story of true multidisciplinary medicine, which takes the impossible and makes it the standard of care.

With the help of Dr. Aftab Chisti and Dr. John Raus, we devised an inventive technique to sustain Connor’s life by providing manual dialysis for Connor for two weeks until his renal function spontaneously recovered.

Connor’s team

In those two weeks Crystal, Mary, Becca, Kim, Lindsey, and a number of other nurses performed manual dialysis every 15-30 minutes for 12-hour shifts at the time.

And while the physicians came and went, Genine and Heather, Connor’s neonatal nurse practitioners, kept the care consistent and in order for the rest of us. For months to follow, Genine and Heather encouraged Connor’s family, nursed his wounds, protected his development, loved him and bonded with him the way only mothers do, before having to let him go. This is their story, as much as it is Connor’s.

By the time he was discharged home, Connor crossed paths with 11 neonatologists, four pediatric surgeons, 15 neonatal nurse practitioners and PAs, two nephrologists, nine surgery residents, and an array of respiratory, music, speech, occupational and physical therapists, each an essential piece of his puzzle.

I cannot begin to touch on the village it took to get him home. Nor can I begin to describe the dignity, compassion and kindness with which his parents, Chrissy and Dustin, graced each of us, despite living through a battle none of us will ever completely appreciate – that of a NICU parent. This, above all, is their story.

Those of us who take care of neonates carry within us a healthy dose of realism, which we drown with cautious optimism every time we walk into the hospital. Hope is that intangible quality of pediatric physicians, in whose shadow we walk each and every day, careful not to share it too much or risk losing credibility. We hold it close nonetheless. It is our guiding light, held brighter by the courage of our little patients and their families, breathing life in the very walls that surround our children’s hospital.

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Next steps:

UK football coach Mark Stoops and players paid a visit to the Kentucky Children's Hospital.

Pediatric patients get a holiday visit from Coach Stoops, UK football players

UK football coach Mark Stoops and players from the team spread holiday cheer to kids at Kentucky Children’s Hospital on Tuesday.

Check it out!

Ashley Rapske's passion for baking flows into her work. She bakes and sometimes cooks for staff at Kentucky Children's Hospital several times a week.

Child Life worker’s ‘baking therapy’ spreads sweetness to KCH staff

It’s no one’s birthday, anniversary or retirement party, but Child Life specialist Ashley Rapske has a container filled with fresh-baked morsels free for the taking at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

Rapske has worked in the KCH Child Life Program for the past three years, and most days of the week she brings cookies, bars, cakes and other baked treats with her to work.

Child Life specialists and assistants are in constant contact with patients and families, providing emotional support, procedural preparation and coordinating developmental and normative activities for children receiving inpatient treatment. They encounter hurting children and heartbreaking cases on a daily basis. Maintaining interests outside the hospital helps workers manage the stressful nature of their job.

When Rapske was interviewed for the job three years ago, her future supervisor wanted to know how she coped with stress.

“I said, ‘Oh, I like to bake,’” she said.

‘Baking therapy’ brings people together

A lifelong practitioner of “baking therapy,” Rapske finds joy and gratification in sharing the products from her oven. Her off-hours baking habit has turned into a ritual for sweets-seekers on staff at KCH. KCH nurses, doctors, therapists, maintenance staff, and Child Life specialists and assistants often stop by the Child Life Department to sample her homemade cookies, cakes, bars and snacks. She also cooks a crock-pot meal for her Child Life coworkers every week. Rapske said homemade pastries improve moods, encourage hardworking staff to take a break and bring people together during difficult times.

“I think it’s a little thing that can make a big difference,” Rapske said. “I’ve had nurses who are feeling down come in, and you can see their smile. They are like, ‘I do feel better. Thank you.’ ”

Rapske remembers how her treats brought staff together after the sudden loss of a patient on the floor. She said many staff members gathered around her batch of cookies to commiserate and work through the pain of the loss.

“We said, ‘Let’s be grateful that we get to go home at night,’” Rapske said. “It helped put things in perspective. We had a smile and a laugh, and it kind of got us over the hump.”

Sweet tooth? ‘Stop by the Child Life office’

Rapske’s recipes are often more extravagant than a standard plate of sugar cookies or tray of brownies. She dabbles with a variety of ingredients and plants unexpected surprises in her confections, such as stuffing caramel candies in peanut butter cookies. After Halloween, she repurposed leftover candy by baking a batch of Twix brownies. She also replicates nostalgic desserts, such as oatmeal cream pies, vowing the commercial version doesn’t compete with her homemade cookie. But her most popular recipe is the classic chocolate chip cookie.

“The word is out that if you need something good, stop by the Child Life office,” Rapske said.

Lessons from her mother

For Rapske, caring for children and baking were always two activities paired together. She started baking with her mother, a stay-at-home mom who ran a daycare in their home. Rapske learned recipes from her mom, but wasn’t always an expert baker. She started out by replicating her mother’s banana bread recipe. Now, she’s so familiar with her recipes that she can eyeball measurements and tinker with ingredients.

At the same time, she developed a passion for caring for children. Rapske found baking was an activity in which she could easily engage young kids. She has enjoyed showing her nieces and nephews how to crack an egg and sprinkle salt in a mixing bowl.

“They are so proud to show off their creation and what they helped to make,” Rapske said. “It’s a very sensory experience.”

A form of healthcare

As an amateur baker, Rapske can’t share her baked goods with children in the hospital, but she spreads sweetness to other children battling illness or living in poverty through a volunteer role. Every Tuesday, Rapske reports to Maxwell Christian Church to bake a custom cake for a child’s birthday for the nonprofit Sweet Blessings. She receives a description of the child’s interests and decorates the birthday cake based on the child’s wishes. Her creative cakes have ranged from Frozen princesses and superheroes to Lego constructions.

When asked why she bakes for everyone even strangers Rapske has a simple reply: baking is her way of showing others she cares.

“It’s healthcare you have to take care of yourself and help people take care of themselves too.”


Next steps:

  • UK Child Life helps provide play opportunities for sick children and their families. Learn more our program.
  • When your child is sick or hurt, you want the best care possible. That’s exactly what you get at Kentucky Children’s Hospital. Learn more about KCH.
Country artist Ben Rue visited a diabetes education class at the Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center

Country music star Ben Rue visits kids at Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center

Kids in the pediatric diabetes education class at the UK Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center welcomed a special classmate earlier this week.

Country music artist Ben Rue, who was in Lexington for the Acoustic Jam to benefit the UK Kentucky Children’s Hospital, stopped by the diabetes education class to talk with children recently diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

Ben was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 14. He told the kids that living with a chronic illness can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to define their lives.

“Kids with Type 1 diabetes need to know that just because you have this condition doesn’t mean that it holds you back from being or doing whatever you want to do,” he said.

Watch highlights from Ben’s visit below, including an acoustic performance for the kids at Barnstable Brown.


Next steps:

  • Learn more about the Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center, which provides medical management in every area of diabetes as well as education support to assist in lifestyle changes.
  • Interested in donating to the Kentucky Children’s Hospital? Visit Give to KCH to learn more about ways you support our mission.