Easing kids’ fears about health care

Two med students use teddy bears to make doctor visits less intimidating for young children
Medical students at a Teddy Bear Hospital event in Montreal North.
McGill medical students taking part at a Teddy Bear Hospital club event in Montreal-Nord on July 15. (Photo courtesy Alejandra Martinez)

For most people, a visit to a doctor’s office or a hospital isn’t a pleasant experience. For young children, the experience can also be confusing and intimidating. Two medical students, with the help of fellow student volunteers, have launched an initiative to help make the process a little less daunting for young grade schoolers.

During the summer of 2021, Alejandra Martinez and Bertrand Leduc, two third-year students in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, launched the McGill Teddy Bear Hospital Club, a project aimed at helping children aged four to seven understand what can happen when they get treated at a hospital or a clinic – with the help of their stuffed animals.

The group’s members visit schools and summer camps, where they recreate a typical hospital environment –except the “patients” are the kids’ own stuffed animals. The students walk the stuffies, and their young owners, through the kinds of things that can happen as they get treatment for various ailments.

“The Teddy Bear Hospital is a concept that exists in Europe,” Martinez said. “Bertrand heard about this project because he traveled in Europe, and I heard about it through my friend who lives in Quebec City and started this at Université Laval for the first time. It was a huge success.”

Shortly after the group was created, Martinez and Leduc set about recruiting other med students interested in giving their time for their planned in-person events. Since then, they have organized two events – in June at St. Gabriel’s Elementary School in Pointe-St-Charles for about 120 youngsters, and last week at a Montreal-Nord summer camp, run by the Les Fourchettes de l’Espoir charity, which hosted close to 150 kids.

Teddy bears stand in as “patients”

The youngsters and their stuffed animals rotate through different medical stations. One station, for example, would find a student guiding the stuffed animal through the emergency room procedure for treating a broken arm. Another station might simulate what happens during a regular physical exam at a doctor’s office.

“Sometimes kids are really scared about everything that’s related to the physical exam,” Martinez said. “Students would take blood pressure, check vital signs, they listen to their chest, they take their temperature.”

Other stations include an X-ray station, an operating room station, as well as one that promotes healthy eating habits.

The group also lined up a supervisor, Dr. Mylene Dandavino, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and member of the Division of General Pediatrics of the Montreal Children’s Hospital, who had a hand in setting up the stations. Corporate sponsors, including Ikea and Toys ‘R’ Us, chipped in with furniture and teddy bears.

Designed to be fun

The events are meant to be fun rather than intimidating, and they expose the kids to the process so that they will be less apprehensive if and when the real thing happens. At the Club’s first event at St. Gabriel’s School, the kids were genuinely impressed.

“The teachers gave us really good feedback,” Martinez said. “They said the kids really loved it. We asked the kids to color a facial scale – to have them say they’re happy or not happy – before and after. The kids are less scared of the hospital than they were before they started.”

As Martinez and Leduc enter their fourth and final years in medical school, they plan to continue the initiative at other schools and day camps. They have sent emails to other schools and organizations to help publicize the program, and they’re now working on setting up another school event in September in Hampstead.