At this McGill teddy-bear hospital, children are the doctors


The program helps demystify medical procedures and alleviate anxiety. As they go through the wards, “kids come up with ideas about not being afraid.”

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The children were the doctors and their teddy bears the patients as Hampstead Elementary School’s gymnasium was transformed into a teddy bear hospital for the day.

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Preschool through second grade students at the Montreal School Board’s English school spent part of last Friday maneuvering their teddy bears through several stations, including a physical examination station, medical imaging and surgeries.

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“The kids are becoming the doctors of their own teddy bears,” Alejandra Martinez, a fourth-year medical student in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at McGill University and co-founder and co-president of McGill, along with classmate Bertrand Leduc, explained to the Teddy Bear Hospital Project. Martinez, 25, hopes to become a pediatrician.

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The idea behind the project is to make encounters with doctors and hospitals less scary for children. The first teddy bear hospital was founded in 2000 by the German medical student association. Today, these “hospitals,” an initiative of the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations, exist at McGill and other universities in Quebec, Canada and Europe.

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At McGill, medical students as well as students from health science disciplines such as nursing, nutrition, physical therapy and occupational therapy are involved in the project.

The experience should be fun for the children: Everyone receives a map of the various stations and a sticker after going through each station. “They love it,” Martinez said. “They are so proud of their card and want all the stickers.”

McGill held its first teddy bear hospital event in June at St. Gabriel’s School in Pointe-St-Charles; the second took place in July at a day camp in North Montreal run by the organization Fourchettes de l’Espoir. The children were eagerly asking for a return visit, she said.

Educating children about interactions with the medical community is an effective way to reduce anxiety — and when children are less afraid, it’s been known to have less anxiety and less pain, she said.

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“The little ones are so curious and open to the world,” said Dr. Mylène Dandavino, an associate professor of pediatrics at McGill University who practices at Montreal Children’s Hospital; She is the supervisor of the project.

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“It’s really nice to have an intervention that shows them they have nothing to worry about.”

First grade student Mahdiyar Taghvaee takes a heart from a stuffed bear being held by Edith Corriveau-Parenteau, McGill's fourth year medical student, during the Teddy Bear Hospital event at Hampstead Elementary School on the surgical ward.
First grade student Mahdiyar Taghvaee takes a heart from a stuffed bear being held by Edith Corriveau-Parenteau, McGill’s fourth year medical student, during the Teddy Bear Hospital event at Hampstead Elementary School on the surgical ward. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal newspaper

By examining their teddy bear, doing everything from checking blood pressure and temperature to other vital signs and listening to their heartbeat, weighing him – or her – and examining their ears, the children help the bear get through whatever a healthy child does at an exam, Martinez said.

At the medical imaging station, where a teddy bear may have a broken arm and have to go through a mock X-ray machine, “the kids come up with ideas on how not to be scared,” she said.

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The occupational therapy ward could be equipped with a wheelchair or a cane, and “the ward’s main message is that just because they move differently doesn’t mean you can’t be friends.”

First grade students Schlok Sharma, right, and Sebastian Rodriguez Chaparro wear dark glasses to watch as McGill first-year medical student Jenna Gregory guides their stuffed animals through a mock x-ray machine.
First grade students Schlok Sharma, right, and Sebastian Rodriguez Chaparro wear dark glasses to watch as McGill first-year medical student Jenna Gregory guides their stuffed animals through a mock x-ray machine. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal newspaper

At the pharmacy stations, bottles are marked with hearts, stars and circles, and kids must choose different ingredients to mix Teddy’s “medicine.” The station’s message, Martinez said, is not to take medication that doesn’t belong to you.

On the operating ward is a giant teddy bear whose internal organs are revealed when a zipper is unzipped on the bear’s front: the heart, lungs, stomach and intestines are molded and stuffed out of fabric. The children search the organs for the “sad worm” that stands for the appendix: The bear has stomach pains, Martinez explained, because he has appendicitis.

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The children also put on hats and gloves and learn to use thread to sew the teddy bear through knots. “It’s a fun game,” she said.

According to Dandavino, the planning and design of the wards by the medical students required a great deal of thought, time and effort, and provided an important learning experience.

They’ve been working hard to develop the concepts for the teddy bear hospital, prepare the scenarios and scripts, obtain permits and collect sponsorship money and medical supplies including hats and surgical gloves for the children, she said.

“They are energetic and motivated – and determined to really make a difference,” said Dandavino.

Lauren Perlman, a second-year medical student at McGill, helps 1st grade student Petro Kolodiichuk sew or stitch a teddy bear with thread after an
Lauren Perlman, a second-year medical student at McGill, helps 1st grade student Petro Kolodiichuk sew or stitch a teddy bear with thread after an “operation” at the teddy bear hospital. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal newspaper

The students are considering developing a research project around the school-based immunization program, she said, and this would provide another opportunity to work with the children.

Many of the medical students hope to practice pediatrics, she said, so learning to get children’s attention and communicate well with them is important. And as they learn, they also learn to be teachers. And as Dandavino noted, the word doctor derives from the Latin verb docere: it means to teach.

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First grade students, from left, Raya Jalalian, Koshika Vivek and Petro Kolodiichuk remove organs from a stuffed bear held by McGill's fourth-year medical student Edith Corriveau-Parenteau while attending a 'teddy bear hospital' at Hampstead Elementary School. perform surgery.
First grade students, from left, Raya Jalalian, Koshika Vivek and Petro Kolodiichuk remove organs from a stuffed bear held by McGill’s fourth-year medical student Edith Corriveau-Parenteau while attending a ‘teddy bear hospital’ at Hampstead Elementary School. perform surgery. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal newspaper

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