Dolls Help Children Cope With Illnesses : Therapy: The toys are used in a variety of ways at hospitals. Often, they help prepare youngsters for surgery or other painful medical procedures.

<i> from Associated Press</i>

They are young children dealing with grown-up health problems that would scare and frustrate adults. So many hospitals use a specially made doll to help the youngsters learn about their illnesses.

Some of the dolls from Legacy Products have vinyl overlays of body parts; others are adapted so they can be used with real medical equipment.

“I can’t tell you how much they’ve helped our kids,” said Holly Schultz, a child life specialist at the Gillette Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, Minn.


The dolls are used in a variety of ways at hospitals in more than 35 states. Often, they are used to help prepare children for surgery or other painful medical procedures.

After helping a young diabetic give an insulin injection to a Legacy doll, Methodist Hospital nurse Connie Shella said, “Sometimes my friend is angry. Why do you think he is angry?”

“Because it hurts,” 5-year-old Jared Riley replied.

“But if I stop giving the injections, what will happen? He won’t feel good,” Shella said, holding up the frowning doll, which had a vinyl overlay of a pancreas.

The soft dolls are made of a fabric similar to the looped side of Velcro, which allows the overlays to be easily attached. They come in various sizes, but the standard is about 27 inches.

To help children identify with the dolls, they come with wigs that can be changed to match the child’s hair color. “Mood masks” also allow the child to replace the doll’s happy face with one that is sad, angry, sleepy or worried.

Children tired of being poked and prodded can express their frustrations through the dolls.

“I think it’s positive for kids to express anger to a doll as opposed to hitting a sister or a staff person,” Schultz said.

The dolls also can help parents whose children are sick. Anne Eccles used a “bleeding knee” doll to learn how to give injections to her 1-year-old son, Campbell, who has hemophilia. The doll’s knee opens, and red fabric surrounding the joint simulates a hemorrhage.

Practicing on the doll “made me feel a lot more comfortable,” Eccles said.

The dolls reflect a variety of medical disorders. Legacy is in the process of developing a spina bifida doll and vinyl overlays that show a variety of cardiac problems.

Katherine Miller founded the Cambridge City-based company in 1988, after she and her sister made a washable doll and displayed it at a medical conference.

“Nurses would come by our exhibit and say, ‘Have you ever put in a tracheotomy?’ or ‘Do you think you could put in an IV?’ ” Miller said. “We didn’t see why we couldn’t. And that’s how the whole thing started.”

Most dolls cost about $250, although the price varies depending on their features.

Miller and her sister now have about a dozen people working for them, although many employees make the dolls at home in their spare time.

“This has been a bittersweet experience for us,” Miller said. “Just about all of us are mothers. That’s why we dress the dolls in bright, happy clothes and try to make them look as normal as possible.

“We want to play a role in positive reinforcement with these children. We want them to hope they will be better.”