Deneas Cochran, the Clinical Manager at Children's West, explains that children naturally have anxiety before surgery. "We look for ways to make it fun," she says. One of those ways is to give each child, when they arrive for surgery, a plain white, soft cotton doll to hold and take home with them later. The children are encouraged to decorate and personalize their dolls with crayons.
"Younger children have different ways of communicating," explains Cochran. "Play is a great way to express themselves — to help them to become more relaxed."
Doctors and nurses at the center also use the dolls to show the child the part of his or her body that will be operated on. They may point to the doll's ears if a child is having tubes inserted or mark the throat for a tonsillectomy or even add a splint to a doll's arm if necessary.
Cochran says that the anesthesiologists also regularly interact with the dolls to distract the youngsters. "There are many unique possibilities for the dolls," she adds.
The Comfort Dolls were created as part of a program started in 2004 by Kiwanis members Bob and Judy Kryter. Each month volunteers make and deliver 40 dolls to the Surgery Center.
Due to health reasons, the Kryters retired from the Comfort Doll project in 2011. When the couple retired, Kiwanis member Ed Morris volunteered to take over the project with his wife, Judy, four months ago.
Every month, Judy Morris buys the fabric for the dolls on sale and various Kiwanis club members trace the dolls, cut them out, sew them and turn the forms right side out.
Morris then takes the dolls and fiber filling to Cynthia Huglett, an activity coordinator at Morning Point Assisted Living Facility. Three times a week up to 10 residents in the Lantern Alzheimer unit stuff the forms with the filling as part of their activity schedule.
"We take a 'joy ride' in the bus to Tellico Village and deliver the dolls and cookies to the Kiwanis Chorus group during their practice," explains Huglett.
"She does a great job for us, and we have to slow them down saying I can't make the dolls as fast as you can stuff them," says Kryter of the 40 dolls the residents stuff each month.
Mary Harris, 91, a resident at River Oaks in Lenoir City, makes 20 dolls in addition to 20 custom-designed clown dolls every month.
"She does more work than all of us put together," says Morris. "I took her seven yards of fabric and she handed me 22 clowns completed. I had already told her I had gotten behind with sewing up the dolls. I took 44 dolls and in a matter of hours, she had finished all of them." The dolls take about an hour from start to finish to make.
Harris, as a little girl, learned to sew simply by watching her mother and has never had a lesson. "I have one corner in my bedroom in my little apartment I do all my sewing there," she says. "A year ago I didn't think I'd do any more. I had to have an artificial shoulder, and I'm back doing it. I didn't miss a single month doing it."
Seven years ago she came up with the idea of clown dolls to make children smile. She selects material from her own supplies or purchases fabric to appeal to both boys and girls.
"When I make them I like to sit there and think about the kids who are going to enjoy them," says Harris.