McMaster medical students use teddy bears to teach Niagara kids about health

McMaster medical students Victoria Liu and Nisha Goel apply a cast to the teddy bear of Keegan Pearce, 9, at the Teddy Bear Clinic in Thorold. Photo by JD Howell

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in a Thorold school and a medical student is applying a cast to the right arm of a teddy bear under the watchful eye of a seven-year-old girl.

Upon completion, the teddy is scooped up and kissed by the child. 

“You’re going to be OK,” she says, gently cradling the fuzzy brown bear as she listens to the medical student talk about how bones heal. “The doctor says your arm will be better soon.”

The X-ray imaging and fracture table is one of eight health stations set up around the gym at the after-school program run by the Boys and Girls Club of Niagara.

The visit is thanks to an engaging initiative called the Teddy Bear Clinic run by students at McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine Niagara Regional Campus.

The Teddy Bear Clinic allows children to role play medical scenarios using teddy bears under the guidance of medical students.

“We are teaching kids about health care in a safe and comfortable environment using teddy bears before they have to go through an experience themselves,” says Nisha Goel, a second-year McMaster medical student. “We are talking to them about topics such as physical health, emotional health, and going to the operating room, and that these things can be fun and interesting rather than scary.”

This is the fourth Teddy Bear Clinic presented by the McMaster Niagara medical students since fall 2017 at one of the sites of the Boys and Girls Club of Niagara.

There are approximately 25 medical students from Niagara campus currently volunteering with the initiative.

The concept of using teddy bears to help reduce childhood anxiety related to health care is used in countries around the world, and it caught the attention of Franziska Miller, a 2018 physician graduate of the campus.

Last year, Miller and a team of fellow McMaster medical students established a Niagara-centric version of the Teddy Bear Clinic, incorporating a component of health promotion, including dental care, physical well-being, mental health, nutrition, hand hygiene, in addition to aspects of routine doctors’ visits and hospital settings.

“Studying at the Niagara Campus myself, I saw quite a few children during my pediatric community rotation who were afraid of doctors and of procedures in and out of the hospital, which inspired me to reach out,” says Miller. She also completed her bachelor of health sciences degree at McMaster, and is currently an anesthesiology resident at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“The Teddy Bear Clinic was also started in Niagara to foster a close relationship between medical students at the Niagara Regional Campus of McMaster medical school and the community of Niagara, including the Boys and Girls Club Niagara as well as Niagara Region Public Health.”

Back in Thorold, eight-year-old Faithlynn Newman sits happily playing with her new teddy, named Sharlit.

“It was fun,” she says of the Teddy Bear Clinic experience. “My bear and I learned if you have a broken leg, it takes time to heal. I also learned when you break your leg and you are a kid, it heals faster than if you were an adult.”

Ben Roth, a second-year medical student, spent the afternoon talking to kids about the importance of healthy eating.

“The kids get so excited when they receive their teddy bears, and it gives them an opportunity to feel pride in caring for the health of their teddies,” says Roth, who currently has his sights set on a career in pediatrics or family medicine. “It is an incredibly rewarding thing we can do as medical students to share and help kids feel more at ease when they are interacting with health-care professionals.”

The Boys and Girls Club of Niagara offers programs to assist in the healthy educational, social and physical development of Canadian children and youth. Its staff say the Teddy Bear Clinic is a welcomed addition to its programming.

“This is a great program for our kids to see that our community health providers are helpers, and that going to places like the hospital, doctor or dentist is not scary,” says Ellen Ford, satellite supervisor of the Before and After School Kids Zone with the Boys and Girls Club of Niagara.

“They are very busy kids, and to see them all engaged and speaking with the medical students is wonderful.”

While the program is focused on kids, the medical students also benefit from the interaction.

“This has been a great opportunity to develop skills as it relates to the pediatric population,” says Goel, who is contemplating family medicine.

“Based on our schedule, we may not get exposure to pediatric patients until rotations later on in our training. The Teddy Bear Clinic allows us to gain experience explaining concepts that to an adult patient may be simple, but need to be said in a different way to help pediatric patients understand. It also allows us to get involved and give back to the community.”

Another important community partner for the Teddy Bear Clinic is Niagara Region Public Health. The organization helps train the medical students on additional aspects of public health, and provides the students with materials to use in the clinics.

“The Teddy Bear Clinics are a great opportunity to have children become comfortable with medical appointments in a safe environment and a great opportunity for the students to practice their skills with young patients,” says Stephanie Hicks, who is a primary care engagement advisor with Niagara Region Public Health.

“We appreciate the opportunity to share important public health information in this way.”

Niagara Health also helps by providing Teddy Bear Clinic supplies, such as surgical gloves, masks, gowns and casting materials.

Amanda Bell, regional assistant dean at McMaster’s Niagara campus, she is proud of the student-run initiative and community outreach.

“The Niagara Regional Campus is proud to be able to be training the next generation of physicians in the Niagara region,” says Bell. “I am impressed by the effort our students put in to organizing and running the Teddy Bear Clinic and am thankful for the community partnerships that help support this event. This event has become a favorite for students and children alike and we look forward to other opportunities to give back to the Niagara community.”

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