Patient Puppets help sick kids understand their illnesses and enjoy time at the hospital
'The treatment is supposed to be very difficult, but for her, it's easy,' says mom of 6-year-old with leukemia
In a sunlit room at CancerCare Manitoba, a six-year-old plays with Lizzy the puppet. She inserts a needle into Lizzy's velour-covered chemotherapy port, which looks a lot like the one on her own chest, part of her treatment for leukemia.
- Meet the Winnipeg woman taking weapons from ISIS
- Acupuncture for animals: Veterinarian brings alternative medicine to mutts in Manitoba
"Patient puppets are designed to show children what has happened to them or what is about to happen to them in the hospital," Kettner explained.
Kettner was working as a designer for a local theatre in 1982 when she met a puppeteer who was looking to bring his medical puppet to a Winnipeg hospital.
Kettner put him in touch with a relative of hers, Ruth Kettner, who was the founder of the Children's Hospital child life department.
"I'm really happy I've been able to do this; I can't believe it has been 35 years," she said. "We're just making puppets, but then you realize what a big difference you're making to a child who has to have this major thing happen to them.
Kettner says there is a huge need for these puppets — she has sold them to clinics and hospitals worldwide, including Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, the Mayo Clinic, the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and the Children's Hospital in Winnipeg.
"Young children are very attracted to the puppets; they're fun and gentle, and the puppet can be animated and share emotion," Kidder said. "It's a natural attraction for children because it's play, and play is the world of the child and that's how they learn."
For one mother of that six-year-old with leukemia, it has made all the difference.
"I remember my first day here; I was teary-eyed and seven months pregnant," she said, after requesting that her name not be used.
The mother didn't know how to start explaining the diagnosis and treatment to her daughter, but the child life specialists made things very easy for her six-year-old. "She loves coming to the hospital; she looks forward to coming here and playing with the puppets," she said. "It's incredible — we are very grateful."
In addition to the Patient Puppets, the outpatient clinic at CancerCare Manitoba has a mini hospital for kids to play in, complete with a pint-sized MRI machine, IV pole, examination table and hospital beds — all designed by Kettner.
"The children spend time rehearsing medical procedures using real needles, going through the sequence of events, and explore sensations and coping strategies," says Kidder.
During medical play with the puppets, children assume the role of doctor and nurse and begin to assimilate medical information. "Children start to use the language and that helps them understand and adjust to this new world [they] know nothing about," Kidder said.
Kettner is preparing to hand over the work to her daughter, Samantha Harrison, after three decades.
Harrison wasn't planning on going into the puppet manufacturing business, but at a certain point, it just made sense. "I was looking for something to do and it just worked out really, really well," Harrison says.
For Kettner, learning to let go is important. She says she'll miss the contact with the customers the most, as well as the design aspect of the puppets. But, she said, it's also exciting to see Harrison step up to the plate.
"It has been challenging but also rewarding to know that I'm letting go," she says. "I'm confident that it's going to be well taken care of."