Miles Postlethwait, born with heart, kidney and intestinal defects, wanted a friend who was just like him. So he and his mom, Marty, created one.
That friend, a muslin "buddy" with a plastic tube protruding from its abdomen and a row of scars across its heart, has helped Miles, now 9, through more than 30 major surgeries.
Three years since its creation, that single buddy has grown into Shadow Buddies, the Postlethwaits' year-old company that makes 12 different disease- and disability-specific dolls.
The rag dolls have been stitched, fitted for casts, anesthetized, hooked up to chemotherapy lines, given shots and loved by about 12,000 children across the United States.
"Even little kids who have Down's syndrome and some of the ones that are a little more severely handicapped all say, 'me, me,' when they get them and look underneath the gowns," company President Marty Postlethwait said.
The 12-inch dolls come light- and dark-skinned, with knotted yarn hair in different colors. Each wears a printed hospital gown and underneath, they show the unique physical characteristics of their human buddies' disease or disability.
Miles, whose thumbprint is on the left hand of each buddy, designed the prototype when he was 6.
When Marty Postlethwait asked her son how the buddies should look, he said, "We need to put heart eyes on them for love, so that the kids know that they're loved, and they all should smile so that when the kids look at the buddies, they are happy."
The buddies were test-marketed for children ages 6 months through 16 years. But all ages are comforted by them, Marty Postlethwait said.
The oldest Shadow Buddy owner is an 88-year-old woman who needed a pacemaker and heart-valve replacement. She still has her buddy one year after the surgery.
The youngest is Cheyenne Pyle, the Florida baby who got a heart transplant the day she was born in November and is believed to be the nation's youngest heart recipient.
Chris Brown, a director at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said children can take their buddy into the operating room during surgery, where it sits on the operating table and even wears a little mask.
The custom-made companions have made some patients more cooperative, said Cindy Markland, a child life specialist at Denver Children's Hospital in Denver.
"It reduces some of the stress," she said. "It's them getting a little better sense of control. Everything is being done to them, so they feel more in control when they are working on their buddies."
The Postlethwaits sell the dolls wholesale to corporations, who may then distribute the dolls or ask the Postlethwaits to distribute them. They cost about $10 each.
Some buddies have even traveled across the world. In October, the company donated 100 dolls to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's International Trust for Children's Health Care.
In her suburban Kansas City office, Marty Postlethwait keeps a large notebook of letters from parents, children and health care workers. A letter from a pediatric AIDS foundation in Puerto Rico said that 3-year-old twin girls had received the special dolls in the hospital.
"Both girls died," the letter said. "But their buddies were with them to the end. They even shared their medicine with them."
To contact the producers of Shadow Buddies, write to Shadow Buddies, 9875 Widmer, Lenexa, Kan., 66215; telephone (913) 599-1856.