RMS Service Club learns how year-long project

Therapy dolls touch lives of hospitalized children

Therapy Dolls pic 1
Students at Rolesville middle school attend a Skype session with faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill.
photo Jeanne e. Fredriksen

By Jeanne E. Fredriksen

Rolesville Middle School’s Service Learning Club, under the direction of Kim Davis, undertook a year-long project to create therapy dolls for hospitalized children. Their task was to trace and cut out the patterns for the dolls and gowns. Once community volunteers sewed the pieces, the students then stuffed and dressed the dolls.

On June 9, the club Skyped with Jessica Irven, Pediatric Psychosocial Support Program coordinator at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Pediatric Oncology Center, to learn how the dolls become teaching tools.

The first thing Irven told the students was, “Our job is specifically to make sure that any kid in the hospital gets to be a kid.”

One of the fundamental goals of the pediatric oncology support team is to help each child in the program understand what is happening with their body on their own developmental level. The team also helps patients understand that they have choices, control and ways to help them cope with what they’re going through.

In pediatric oncology support, Irven added, “We help them understand what is cancer, what does it do to your body, what is the treatment, and how we can support you to get through that.”

One of the most important support mechanisms is the dolls, which are used according to each patient’s need.

“What (the patients are) going to go through, we do to the doll so they can see, understand and rehearse some strategies for getting through it,” Irven told the students, “and we can get a sense of what they’re not understanding so we can correct that. Sometimes the dolls are used to explain a surgery, so we mark them up and stitch them up.”

The dolls allow the patient to see the real equipment that would be used in their treatment. For example, if they have to have a needle stick to get a blood sample, Irven illustrates the procedure on the doll first. To reinforce how that would happen, she went through the explanation step by step, talking to the doll as if it were the patient.

Once Irven was done with her presentation, students had the opportunity to ask questions. They learned things such as, not all chemo causes hair loss, babies through teens are treated at the center, and UNC is considered a state hospital, so it serves all 100 counties in North Carolina. Irven also stressed when asked about causes of cancer that it’s not the child’s fault; young kids often assume that they did something that caused their cancer.

Using sunscreen and not smoking were her top two pieces of cancer prevention advice.

The big question, however, was how many dolls are needed for the program? The short answer is, “As many as possible.”

According to Irven, there is an average of one to four children each week who are newly diagnosed with cancer and come to the facility. Each patient gets at least one doll, even if he or she believes they are too old for dolls. Usually, once one is used as an illustration, the patient understands the purpose of the dolls.

Patients are allowed to draw a face on their doll and decorate it how they feel is appropriate, depending upon the circumstances. Other times, a doll might be used to illustrate a different stage of treatment. A patient could, depending upon his or her situation, be issued multiple dolls.

Davis coordinated the Skype session between Irven and club members. Davis is proud of the work her students have completed.

“For the club, I wanted the kids to see was that there’s a world outside of this school,” Davis said. “There’s a lot going on in this world that we don’t know about, but that we can help in a tangible way. I was looking for a project where the kids could really get their hands on something and then see something accomplished. I believe we saw that today.”

Barbara Timmons of the North Wake Optimist Club, who worked with Davis to implement the project, attended the Skype session with cards of encouragement that were handmade by Julie Wiggins’ third grade class at Rolesville Elementary school. Those cards will accompany the completed dolls.

“Next year, we’re hoping to get the high school students involved in actually sewing the dolls and gowns,” Timmons said.