Newshub headline with Children's Wisconsin logo
Child in hospital bed with Elmo doll

Why the best care for kids includes caring for stuffed animals

As a pediatric nurse for 12 years, it was exciting to see NBC Nightly News visit Children’s Wisconsin and highlight something we do here all the time for our patients to put them at ease. The video above demonstrates what most of us know — a child’s favorite stuffed animal, blanket, toy or doll can be their best friend and safety net. After watching the story, there is no doubt what that is for 6-year-old Payson. It’s his Batman. For 9-year old Ryan, it’s Mike Wazowski. As a girl who loves sports, my softball mitt was my safety net. (I may or may not have slept with it on occasion.)

Now as adults and caretakers, we lean on those memories of our childhood to help lead our interactions with our patients. What would have made me smile or laugh? What would have made me feel more at ease in a scary and unfamiliar environment?

When I was training to be a nurse, everyone told me that kids are a tough group to work with and that I was crazy for pursuing pediatric nursing. In one of my clinical rotations at an adult hospital, my instructor assigned me to care for a little girl. This girl was very scared and attached to her Elmo doll like glue. That Elmo was her safety net. So, I decided that everything I had to accomplish that shift was going to have to be done to Elmo, too. Elmo got his blood pressure checked, I listened to his heart beat, he had a dressing change and he took his meds like a champ. It was that day, in that moment, that I knew I would be taking care of kids the rest of my career. Pediatric nursing isn’t crazy, it’s inspiring.

Because kids have to be kids — even in the hospital

Doctor surgery on stuffed animalAt Children’s Wisconsin, we refer to this as being “100% kids.” It’s a philosophy that every single employee lives every single day. It means understanding that kids aren’t just small adults and tailoring care specifically for the unique needs of a small, growing body. And it means respecting their childhood and treating them like kids.

However, we know that despite all our best efforts to make our environment and care as comfortable and gentle as possible, hospitals can be scary. The unknown can be scary. Kids are kids and they get scared. And when they do, they often cling to what they know best, to what has always brought them comfort – their favorite stuffed animal

So, when Dr. Travis Groth, pediatric urologist, completed surgery on 9-year-old Ryan and noticed that the arm of his Mike Wazowski doll (who Ryan had brought with him to every one of his eight surgeries during his still-early life) was ripped and falling off, he didn’t think twice. He reassembled his surgical team, prepped the monster and sutured the arm. When Ryan awoke some time later, he saw his best friend in the whole world sitting in bed next to him, bandaged up just like he was.

Seemingly small gestures such as what Dr. Groth did for Mike Wazowski and what doctors, nurses and caretakers all throughout Children’s Wisconsin do every single day make a world of difference to these kids and their families. I know it because I see it every day as a nurse in our Herma Heart Institute and I know it because I saw it firsthand as a pediatric patient myself and, most recently, as a mother of a patient cared for within these same walls.

What makes Children’s Wisconsin such a special place is that balance. Our doctors, nurses and caretakers are among the leading experts in their fields. They’re equipped to treat the most medically complex cases imaginable. At the same time, they know when to have some fun. When kids are comfortable, when they’re playing, when they’re able to — if only for a moment — take their mind off their illnesses, that’s when true healing occurs. Because, after all, kids have to be kids.

That was certainly true of 6-year-old Payson.

When Payson got a new heart, so did Batman

Batman stuffed animal surgery

The NBC Nightly News segment featuring Payson illustrates how caring for kids is different and the effort we take at Children’s Wisconsin to make every child’s treatment a little less scary. For Payson, he had been waiting for a new heart for more than two years — and he had been living at Children’s Wisconsin since October.

Being away from home and school and his friends was hard on him. So, his parents took a small plastic heart-shaped digital recorder and recorded a message from Payson. They then placed the heart inside the chest of his favorite Batman doll and took it to school. Batman sat at Payson’s desk and was carried from class to class by his friends. And whenever they wanted to hear Payson’s voice, they just pushed on his chest and his little voice would come whispering out.

Thankfully, a few days into the new year, Payson got his new heart. We all figured that since Payson got a new heart, Batman needed one too. When Dr. Mike Mitchell, cardiothoracic surgeon, heard of this, he was fully on board. A few days later he assembled his entire surgical team, prepped the caped crusader and gave him a new heart, with a new message from Payson’s parents.

When Payson awoke some time later, he saw his best friend in the whole world sitting in bed next to him, with a stitched-up incision down his chest just like his. And, at that moment, things became a little less scary. He was no longer going through this alone.