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Buddy dolls comfort sick children

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Children with scars, fears and medical problems are finding comfort and companionship with dolls who are very much like them.

This week, children at the University Hospital Child Life Department received "Shadow Buddies" - foot-tall muslin dolls with hearts for eyes and huge grins. Like the children who will own them, the dolls are clad in hospital gowns. But the similarity doesn't end there. If a child has had (or soon will have) heart surgery, the doll bears a similar scar. A child with a colostomy gets a doll who also has a single stoma - a surgical opening in the abdominal wall.Three children who are in the Intermountain Burn Center received dolls who also wear the pressure bandages used with burns.

Shadow Buddies have both a history and a lot of heart.

They are the creation of Marty Postelthwait, whose son Miles, now 11, was born nine weeks too soon. His twin died and while Miles lived, there was a cost. Over his short life he has endured 34 surgeries (with another scheduled soon), ranging from operations on his heart to his kidney, stomach and liver.

He was a popular little boy at age 6, with lots of young friends. But none of them were like him and he often felt alone. He told his mother that he wished he had a friend who was just like him. When she reminded him that he had lots of friends, he replied wistfully that those friends don't wear a colostomy bag like he does; they don't have a heart surgery scar or have to go to the hospital a lot.

That wistful statement birthed Shadow Buddies. With Miles' help and her husband Eric's support, Marty Postelthwait created the first doll, which shared Miles' medical history. He chose the hearts for eyes. And the ever-present smiles are a gift to children who are often sad or in pain. "No matter what, he'll always find a smile on his buddy's face," she said. "The face is so positive that kids will love it."

Most important, the child keeps the dolls, so "there's some stability when a child is going through a period of life that's not stable."

Right now, the 17 styles of Shadow Buddy have been distributed in 58 hospitals nationwide and some have been handed out nationwide. Marty Postelthwait helped Mikhail Gorbachev get some for a pediatric hospital in Russia.

The dolls are inexpensive - $10 each. And they're also only available if a hospital buys them or a corporate sponsor signs on to provide them to young patients.

When she designed them, Marty Postelthwait was an operating room scheduler at an area hospital. "There were no tools we use for education that we let the children keep."

The dolls are more than a child's good friend. They are also an educational tool, helpful for nursing symposiums. They've been used in education sessions in China and Tibet. They can help prepare a child and the family for what to expect with different kinds of surgeries.

The dolls, which are manufactured in Richfield, Wisc., come in light, medium and dark skin tones. Their medical problems reflect those of children who have had ostomies, burns, respiratory problems, cancer, heart surgery, diabetes, Down syndrome, liver transplants, HIV/AIDS, lung transplants and more.

A very special doll, called an ID Buddy, connects with children who are having a hard time "accepting a condition or who have been abused," Marty Postelthwait said. It is created without a face, so that children can create their own buddy. "Health care workers can really see how the children perceive themselves and what their emotions are."

Another doll is popular with women who have breast cancer. That buddy helps women explain to their husbands and children what's going on and what to expect.

For information on Shadow Buddies, call 913-599-1856.