These Handmade “Patient Puppets” Help Sick Kids Make Sense of Their Illnesses

patient puppets
Image Source: Patient Puppets

For children facing serious medical conditions, the hospital can be a confusing and scary place. Unfamiliar people, weird machines, and strange sounds can be startling and uncomfortable. Which is why Shawn Kettner has dedicated her life to helping sick kids find understanding (and even have a little fun) while receiving medical care.

Kettner is the founder of Patient Puppets, a Canadian-based company that makes medical puppets to help children understand hospital procedures. Used in hospitals and clinics worldwide, Kettner’s puppets are hand-sewn and custom designed to mimic exactly what each child is physically experiencing.

The puppets are made of soft foam and fabric, which make them perfect for a snuggly hug whenever a child feels anxious. They also have strategically placed openings on their exterior to reveal features that help a child see what’s going on inside of their body.

As you might imagine, a lot of hard work and care go into making each puppet — which can take anywhere from 40-60 hours to make!

patient puppets
Image Source: Shawn Kettner/Patient Puppets

When the puppets arrive at the hospital, they each receive a name to help the kids feel like they have a friend in the process.

“They are named by the staff or the children,” Kettner shares. “Often the Child Life Department will have a ‘Name the Puppet’ contest or will name the puppets after a donor or special person at their hospital.”

Kettner began making her medical puppets 25 years ago, in 1992 — so it’s safe to say she’s a puppet professional by now. While working as a puppeteer and puppet maker at a regional theater in the ’90s, Kettner was asked to build medical demonstration puppets for the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital. At the time, her relative Ruth Kettner was working in the hospital and had a need for an imaginative tool to help explain medical procedures to children.

“Ruth’s role was to show children what had or what was about to happen to them in the hospital,” Kettner tells Babble. “She was trying to do this with dolls and stuffed animals, because at the time, there were no tools designed for the job.”

Local puppeteer Ron Wagman had come up with a basic concept for a medical demonstration puppet and shared it with Kettner. When she saw how great the need was for more puppets just like it, she took the concept and ran with it, creating her very own Patient Puppets.

“I took him [Wagman] and his puppet to the Children’s Hospital to meet Ruth,” she says. “She fell in love with the puppet and wanted not one, but seven puppets of her own. I filled that request and have been making and distributing Patient Puppets worldwide ever since.”

Since Kettner’s puppets share the same experience as the children they meet, the kids often feel more at ease with what’s happening to them. And that’s no surprise to Kettner, who notes: “When we are not afraid, we are more receptive to medical intervention, more willing to allow procedures to be done to us. This eases and often shortens the path to recovery.”

patient puppets
Image Source: Shawn Kettner/Patient Puppets

The Child Life specialists, nurses, and doctors who use Patient Puppets praise them for helping even the most frightened child accept what is physically and emotionally happening to them. On the Patient Puppets Testimonial page, one doctor writes:

“Our most touching use of the puppet was with a 5-year-old boy with medulloblastoma. He was frightened and upset, and receiving chemotherapy. Our puppet’s name is Larry, and our patient learned how to go through his treatment using the puppet for role play. I do not think that this little boy would have made it through treatment without the puppet.”

In a CBC News article highlighting Kettner’s work, one mother expressed her deep gratitude for the medical puppets that have helped her own 6-year-old daughter cope with being treated for leukemia.

“She loves coming to the hospital; she looks forward to coming here and playing with the puppets,” she shared. “The treatment is supposed to be very difficult, but for her, it’s easy; this has been so important for us.”

Kettner also shares that these puppets have gone on to become lifelong friends for the children who meet them.

“Over the years, I have had thank-you notes from families telling us how the puppet became the friend who shared the medical and emotional challenges and helped their child through the difficult times,” she explains.

patient puppets
Image Source: Shawn Kettner/Patient Puppets

Dawn Kidder, senior child life specialist at HSC Children’s Hospital, loves how relatable the puppets are, as well as the positive impact they’ve had on the kids she works with.

As she recently told CBC News:

“Young children are very attracted to the puppets; they’re fun and gentle, and the puppet can be animated and share emotion. It’s a natural attraction for children because it’s play, and play is the world of the child, and that’s how they learn.”

It was Kidder who first came up with the idea for Kettner to design child-size hospital equipment, which the kids explore alongside their medical puppets. And now, Kettner has been manufacturing and selling the equipment to children’s hospitals for over a decade.

“We build child-size hospital beds, bedside tables, IV Poles, MRI/CT scanners, examination tables, operating room lights, and various other equipment,” says Kettner. “The equipment provides a simulated hospital setting for the children to do procedures with the puppets.”

But Patient Puppets isn’t just Kettner’s personal passion — it’s now become a family affair. Recently, she added her daughter Samantha to the team, with the goal of passing on the business to her. The experience has been meaningful for both mom and daughter.

“It has been wonderful to work with my daughter,” she says. “I think for her it has been inspiring and challenging to learn all of the different skills required to build the puppets and run the business. I find it very comforting and satisfying to know the company is in good hands. I am a very proud mother!”

To date, Kettner’s incredible work has helped hundreds of families, and her dedication to her industry is nothing short of remarkable. We’re so excited to continue following this mother-daughter team as they help the kids who need it most.

h/t: CBC News

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