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Patient Puppets help sick kids understand their illnesses and enjoy time at the hospital

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 in her chest, used as part of her treatment for leukemia.

'The treatment is supposed to be very difficult, but for her, it's easy,' says mom of 6-year-old with leukemia

A Patient Puppet named Sally. (Sabrina Carnevale)

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.

Lizzy is what's known as a Patient Puppet, an idea renowned puppeteer Shawn Kettner came up with 35 years ago as a tool to help explain medical procedures to children.
A Patient Puppet has its spine unzipped. (Sabrina Carnevale)
The anatomically correct puppets, made in Winnipeg, act as a model for certain procedures such as inserting an IV. Some have zippers that open to reveal a spine, and others even have removable hair to resemble a child undergoing cancer treatment. Each puppet is 32 inches tall, about the size of a two-year-old, and can take anywhere from 40-60 hours to complete. The puppets are custom-made to order and have strategically placed openings so children can see its internal organs.
Some Patient Puppets open up to reveal their internal organs. They can show children where they need to be operated on. (Sabrina Carnevale)

"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. 

Soon, she started making the figurines herself. 
Shawn Kettner has been making the puppets for 35 years. (Sabrina Carnevale)

"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.

Dawn Kidder, a senior child life specialist at HSC Children's Hospital, says Patient Puppets not only help medical professionals explain procedures to children but also give kids an opportunity to play and explore.
Dawn Kidder is a senior child life specialist at HSC Children's Hospital. (Sabrina Carnevale)

"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. 

Nine months later, with the help of Kidder and HSC Children's Hospital staff, she said her daughter is less scared of certain procedures. "The treatment is supposed to be very difficult, but for her, it's easy; this has been so important for us."
A Patient Puppet takes a turn in the toy MRI available for sick children to play with. (Sabrina Carnevale)

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. 

She taught Harrison how to make puppets at a young age, and Harrison has previously taught puppetry at Manitoba Theatre for Young People and Prairie Theatre Exchange.
Shawn Kettner is passing the torch to her daughter, Samantha Harrison (left). (Sabrina Carnevale)

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."