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Player 2 Interview: Ryan Henyard

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Player 2 volunteer Ryan Henyard.

Late last year, we unveiled a new pilot program within the walls of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital called Player 2. Through the initiative, gamers have the opportunity to apply the knowledge they’ve acquired through gaming in a manner that supports patients and staff within hospitals.

So far, we’re pleased to say the program has been incredibly well received! As of this blog post, our second round of Player 2 volunteers are either in-training, or have already begun working at our local hospital! Later this year, we hope to begin the process of rolling out the program to a couple hospitals outside Michigan.

Feedback from both volunteers and the hospital seems to indicate Player 2 is providing tremendous value. Across the board – patients, parents, staff, and volunteers have all been able to benefit from the service of gamers!

In this post, we’d like to highlight a recent conversation with one such individual, Ryan Henyard. A lifelong gamer and longtime Gamers Outreach supporter, Ryan is in the unique position of being a Player 2 volunteer AND an employee of the University of Michigan Medical School. His experience with the University’s medical program, as well as his history as a patient, has led to some unique insights about life inside the hospital. He’s been gracious enough to share his perspective in the following interview. Our questions appear in bold

Hey Ryan! Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

No problem at all!

For starters, would you mind telling us a little about yourself? 

Sure thing. Outside of Gamers Outreach, I’m a Learning Informatics Analyst at the University of Michigan Medical School. I work with learning technologies to support the medical school curriculum. I’m a lifelong gamer, and former sick kid. As a young person, I was constantly at the hospital. I had frequent chest pains, and doctors weren’t able to identify the cause. My condition led to frequent ER trips, which meant lots of time sitting around waiting. At the time, I relied on my Game Boy to deal with the immense amounts of time I was spending in the hospital. Eventually when I grew up, I was able to get a diagnosis. My chest pains were being caused by two different heart conditions. One is congenital, but thankfully doesn’t cause much harm – and the other can be treated.

Wow! Glad to hear you were able to identify the cause of those chest pains!

As an adult, it took about two years of investigation. The big difference was working with doctors at U of M. The doctors here were just relentless. I’m very grateful for everything they’ve done, and how well they took care of me. Having been through that experience, I’ve wanted to find a way to give back. I’ve always used gaming as a way to get through times when I’ve been physically ill. That’s how I found out about Player 2.

Tell us about that. How did your experience as a patient lead to Player 2?

My brother in-law has been helping with Gamers Outreach for a long time. When I found out you guys were testing Player 2 in the hospital, I realized it was a good opportunity to use what I know as an employee and a former patient. This was a chance to interact with kids in a relevant way, and perhaps share my story with other patients going through similar things.

My regular job doesn’t involve a lot of patient care – but it does involve teaching medical students, and I’ve learned a lot about the things doctors are concerned about. Because we’re a teaching hospital, I see our students while I’m on the floor with Gamers Outreach. It’s actually helped me better understand how medical students are operating in the modality of the hospital. It’s also given me a chance to work on things the hospital’s training us on (like lean healthcare). I’ve been trying to figure out ways to implement those lessons in what we’ve been doing with Player 2.

Since I’m a med school employee, I had to go through a few extra hoops to create time for volunteering, but it’s been extremely well worth it. That’s probably the most difficult thing for new folks – dealing with the volunteer process. But there’s certainly a reason behind all the paperwork. Volunteer services is very understanding of where we’re coming from, and they’ve been supportive to help us get through it all a little easier.

How has your experience been thus far?

Overall my experience has been fantastic. When I explain what we do to someone, I usually start off by telling them that no matter when I volunteer, there hasn’t been a single day where I didn’t make a genuine connection with someone, be it patient or family.  Those connections are inspired by gaming.

I often work on the 11th floor of the hospital, which is the congenital heart unit. I’m open with sharing my own history with this heart disease, and I’m able to tell the kids about what I went through when I was younger. I think it’s good for them to realize “hey, here’s a former sick kid who grew up OK.”

Every week it feels like I’m more a part of the everyday life of the floors. The child life specialists know I’m coming, and they’re on the lookout for patients they think would benefit from the program.

What were your expectations going into the program? Has there been anything that’s surprised you?

I’ve been surprised by how often kids want somebody to play games with. My very first night I had a patient reach out who asked to play games. I wasn’t expecting to have so much interaction time per shift. The whole experience has really opened my eyes.

Aside from playing games with the kids, one of our jobs is to distribute games to patients throughout the hospital. We basically have a gamer-version of a library cart, which is fully stocked with different games. We’ll push the cart around the hospital and let kids check-out games for the day.

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Ryan sorting through games during a Player 2 shift.

Prior to volunteering, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about child life specialists or what they do at the hospital. That’s been a wonderful surprise. These people provide so much for patients based on what their unique needs are. It’s really great there’s someone there looking out and not ignoring who the kids are as people. The child life team at Mott does such a great job.

Do you have any specific stories you’re able to share?

There’s a bunch. A few weeks ago I was hanging out on the cancer  floor with a kid who wanted to play Minecraft. Shortly after we started playing the game together, another patient walking the hallway paused outside the window and started watching us. I invited him to play along with us, and soon after, two or three other kids were playing with us too – all enjoying the game. A nurse came by to change out medication for one of the patients, and he didn’t even blink. He was able to tune out the procedure and focus on the game, smile, laugh, and have fun. By the time my shift was over, they were all still playing. I thought it was pretty cool to be able to help create a communal experience where you normally don’t get those things happening. There are obviously playrooms and other activities – but this was an instance where we all got the chance to just say “let’s play a game together.”

What’s the reaction been from parents / staff?

For staff, it took people a few weeks to wrap their minds around the fact I was leaving my regular job to come volunteer here. Someone mistook me for one of the football players, and the second week I was mistaken for a medical student. Now that everyone knows I’m here as Player 2, they’re really supportive. The child life team has helped identify patients I can support, and that’s been cool.

For parents, there have been a lot of times where a parent was just thankful to have an adult to talk to. They’re able to share frustrations or hopes while you’re playing a game – and oftentimes I advise on what games they can try when they get home. I actually had one patient who had built a large world in Minecraft over a long stay, and she was sad because she thought she had to leave her creations behind. I worked with her mom to get a USB drive and save her things so she could pick up where she left off. Her mother was so happy someone was willing to do that.

With my own health history, it’s been great sharing stories with parents. I’ve been able to let them know what goes on and what I do to normalize things. When you get sick and something life changing happens, it takes a lot to get used to the “new normal” or figure out what that’s going to be. I think my presence has helped patients and parents acclimate to their “new normal”. Kids see I’ve grown up and ended up OK, and they don’t have the stress or pressure that their current situation has to be forever. Being able to be a part of that process with others reminds me of how grateful I am to have been able to work through my own illness.

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Ryan next to one of the GO Karts inside C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

This is incredible to hear, Ryan. Any final thoughts on life as a Player 2 volunteer?

One of my co-workers reminded me most of the time, people who are in the hospital are having some of the hardest days of their life. Anything we can do to make that a little bit easier makes a ridiculously big difference. This realization has started to change who I am as a person. It’s to a point now where before Player 2 and after Player 2, I notice I act differently in my regular life. I just find that I’ve been generally more helpful. I’m frequently reaching out to people, and it’s easy to see the difference it makes.

When I think about who I want to be as a person, that thought is now entirely different having been involved in this volunteer work. This program has made me change my own metrics for what makes a “good day”. You realize how wonderful it is to make someone else feel good. I just recently celebrated my birthday, and I found myself thinking about how many more people I was able to help this year than last. That’s an entirely different thought process from thinking about a review I got on a job, or a recent vacation. My idea of a successful year has shifted to “how many people have I been able to help.” That’s something everyone can work towards, and doesn’t require you to be a genius, extremely talented, or well placed. It’s something everyone can work towards.

That’s a beautiful perspective to have. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Ryan! Best of luck going forward!

Thanks!