These sweet puppets help kids mentally prepare for surgery

Medically correct puppets teach and reassure children about major surgeries

Patient Puppets founders with a puppet
Photo: Peter Harrison

To small kids, surgery is a big deal—a big, scary deal. They might not understand what’s going to happen to their bodies, in spite of doctors’ explanations. They may be nervous about strange medical machines and equipment. And they could have strong feelings they don’t quite know how to express. Enter Patient Puppets!

The brainchild of Winnipeg puppeteer Shawn Kettner, Patient Puppets were developed 35 years ago and are used in hospitals around the world today to show kids what to expect from surgeries. The floppy and friendly-looking puppets help children mentally prepare for everything from needles to full-body scans to amputations.

The plush therapy toys are about the size of a two-year-old child. They come in orange, pink, green and blue, so they’re not race-specific—something that might alienate a kid. They’re designed with internal features such as velour brains, pumping hearts and jointed spines, which are accessible via openings. Child Life therapists, who are trained to walk children through procedures, can actually open them up and show the kids what part of the body the surgeons will be working on to make the surgery details easier to grasp.

Patient puppets help children prepare for surgery
Photo: Samantha Harrison

Once a child has watched how a procedure is done, they can get into mini scrubs and rehearse it for themselves, playing the role of doctor. The whole thing becomes less intimidating as the child feels a sense of control.

The puppets come with street clothes and hospital gowns, so, just like a sick child, they need to get changed to prep for a procedure. When a child is going through chemotherapy for cancer and begins to lose hair, the puppet can lose its yarn locks too. Puppet-sized IVs, scanners and operating room tables make the scenarios all the more relatable.

Mini versions of the puppets can be custom-made for children to keep with them for emotional reassurance. Kids often become very attached to these dolls, because they’re both going through the same things.

Some children will act out when they’re going through a serious illness, because they don’t know what to do with their anger and fear. They might have the puppets throw a tantrum or cry realistic watery tears to help get their own emotions out. Or they might perform countless make-believe surgeries on the puppets, until they’ve come to terms with this reality in their own life.

It takes Kettner 40 to 60 hours to hand-make a single puppet, and she has designed more than 125 different medically correct adaptations over the past 35 years. But it’s time for her to retire now.

Fortunately, Kettner’s daughter Samantha Harrison has been making puppets too. The former head of props for Manitoba Theatre for Young People has been working closely with her mother for two years manufacturing Patient Puppets and now she’s ready to take over the family business.

Patient puppets help kids prepare for surgery
Photo: Samantha Harrison

Harrison thrives on challenges such as creating a puppet to demonstrate rotationplasty, a surgery for a type of cancer that starts in the knee joint. The puppet had to be made so it could have a partial leg amputation, then have its ankle joint reattached with the foot facing backwards to replace the knee joint. Next it would be fitted with a prosthetic lower leg.

But the best part of the job is the response from people who use these therapy tools. “We got a letter from a woman whose Patient Puppet that my mother made in the 90s was lost in a flood,” says Harrison. “I’m working on an exact replica for her—in the same fabrics—because she said she couldn’t imagine doing her job without it.”

Here at Today’s Parent, we wish Kettner a happy and fulfilling retirement. And we’re thrilled that Harrison is taking the baton, so Patient Puppets can continue to slip into their gowns and bravely do what they have to do in make-believe ORs around the world.

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