The Teddy Bear Hospital

Interview with volunteer students Paul Johnson, Alexander Cowcher & Sally Huynh

Students Paul Johnson, Alexander Cowcher and Sally Huynh talk about their experience engaging with the community through the Teddy Bear Hospital volunteer program.

For the past six years, the teddy bears of Melbourne have been measured and weighed, treated for sore tummies, assessed for broken bones and earnestly instructed to eat their vegetables.

Anyone who watches the Royal Children’s Hospital Good Friday Appeal may have seen trainee doctors, nurses, dentists and other health science students from the University of Melbourne examine the ailing bears. They are accompanied by their owners, who might bandage their limbs, or show them how to brush their teeth.

Medical student Paul Johnson has volunteered at the Teddy Bear Hospital since it opened its doors, and has seen it grow year by year. “It’s for kids to have a fun day out with their teddy bears, and for them to become comfortable with healthcare professionals. It is also a great opportunity for the student volunteers to improve their communication skills and become confident interacting with children.”

It is also a great opportunity for the student volunteers to improve their communication skills and become confident interacting with children.

In 2017, 3500 children with teddy bears attended on Good Friday, assisted by 1100 volunteer students. Together they raised more than $26,000 for the Royal Children’s Hospital. For the past three years the hospital has also operated at Chadstone Shopping Centre for a weekend in late July or August.

The volunteer medical, nursing and allied health students are supported by a design team who make teddy-sized physio beds, stretchers, ambulances, helicopters and dentist chairs – as well as mouth mirrors and drills (the students make drilling noises too, if required).

“The kids are dentists to their teddy,” explains dental student Sally Huynh, who has also been a volunteer since the hospital opened. “It’s really cute to see them telling stories and talking to them.” She says the hospital is a way for children to learn about basic health care. While for the volunteers, the event provides an opportunity to interact with students from across the faculty.

Every teddy is given a passport, and is assessed by a triage team. Many have sore tummies because they have eaten too much chocolate over Easter. Each teddy is measured and weighed, and then sent to the anatomy station where their owners learn about parts of the body by placing Velcro organs on a model. Nurses are in charge of vaccinations, optometrists conduct eye tests and physiotherapists suggest rehab exercises.

Physiotherapy student Alexander Cowcher admits that most children don’t know what physiotherapy is. “We teach them that it’s about muscles and bones. If your muscle hurts then you go to a physio.” The children are typically six or seven years old, although toddlers and older children also attend. The cost for a hospital visit is $5 per child (and teddy) or $10 for a family, but the students will not turn a teddy away who cannot pay.

Johnson, Huynh and Cowcher will soon be qualified practitioners, so this will be their last year at the hospital, although they hope to attend as alumni in the future. Cowcher says: “It’s a very tiring day, but it’s very rewarding – no-one complains.” He recalls that one of his first patients was a “shy little girl” of six or seven who began to “open up to me” as he put her teddy through a physio routine. He was learning how to approach a wary child, and she was learning “how to trust a health practitioner”.