Towards the end of May, after months of organising, I was part of a group of second and third year Otago University medical students who had the pleasure of bringing to life the 2017 Dunedin Teddy Bear Hospital. The hospital runs for a week and culminates with a Community Day on the final Saturday. It gives children, mostly aged 3 to 7, the chance to engage with a simulated healthcare environment, but in this case with the wonderful moral support of a best friend – their teddy.
The week was a rainbow of coloured Thomas the Tank Engine and My Little Pony backpacks attached to little people visiting the hospital in an excited, whirring blur accompanied by an unbelievable assortment of teddies. From the tiniest ‘Dog Dog’ to the biggest ‘Daddy Frog’ (who easily superseded in size his concerned, young caregiver) we saw them all. What didn’t change was the clear adoration and attachment shown by the children for their friends. This makes their visit to the hospital with the medical and dental students, volunteering their time as ‘Teddy Doctors’ and ‘Teddy Dentists’ respectively, all the more important. There is no denying that the children’s experience would likely influence their visits to real healthcare environments later in life.
Visits to the doctor, dentist or hospital have traditionally been stereotyped as something to be scared of. If you would like to gain a little insight into why this might be, I recommend a quick google image search of ‘old medical tools’. Alternatively, a meander around the medical and dental schools at Otago University will eventually produce a glass display cabinet filled with sharp, vicious-looking instruments gleaming back at you. Fortunately times have changed and the worst instrument likely to be encountered today by children is simply a needle. Nonetheless, I still agree, as I’m sure you do too, that needles remain an unpleasant experience and the fear lingers.
When I try, for a moment, to place myself in the mind of a child, it becomes easier to consider the anxiety they might feel visiting a hospital. The environment is unfamiliar, often very sterile and sometimes quite bleak, with large buildings, strange equipment and scary people in unexplained blue masks. When you are sick, this is probably even more overwhelming.
Therein lies the goal of the Teddy Bear Hospital; to remove the negative connotations of a visit to the doctor or dentist and return the humanity to the whole experience, a humanity which patients so often rightly note as missing from their interactions with medical professionals in today’s world.
And so, during the week of the hospital, students attempted to do just that. Little people arrived continuously, some shy, some excited, each with a sick teddy in tow. Both child and teddy were greeted by smiling students in white lab coats, sporting a stethoscope and armed with an array of stickers and endless bubbles. We listened to many teddy hearts (all with strong beats and full of love for the friend by their side), checked blood pressures, bandaged many paws, x-rayed teddies of all shapes and sizes and prescribed lots of fruit (for both teddy and friend of course). It was when, as the student, you began to sense the child lending you the trust of both themselves and their teddy that you knew you were helping change their perception of a medical environment into something positive. All of a sudden there were more smiles dotted around the room, more curious young minds asking endearing questions and requesting a listen with the stethoscope.
Whether or not we have succeeded in our goal I can’t confirm, but what I do know for sure is that many teddies left feeling a lot better, and I hope that next time a visit to the doctor or dentist is looming it’s not nearly as intimidating as it might have been.
Savannah Adams is an ocean-loving, cake-baking daydreamer from Sumner, Christchurch, studying Medicine as a postgraduate student in the deep south at Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand.