Valentine bear care at Doll Clinic

Doll Clinic offers children gentle guide to a doctor’s visit

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by Molly Johnson

The Doll Clinic is a community service that SIU Medicine’s Physician Assistant Program coordinates annually for SIU Head Start. The host sites alternate every year between Carbondale, Marion and Murphysboro. This year, morning and afternoon sessions were held at SIU Marion Head Start, 907 West Vicksburg on February 8. 

I put on my first Doll Clinic in 1986. I was working as a family nurse practitioner at Rural Health Inc., an FQHC in Anna. We hosted clinics there for preschoolers in the area many times during the 25 years that I worked there. RHI nurses, a few doctors and other staff educated our young guests. When I joined the faculty at the SIU PA Program, I offered to bring the Doll Clinic there as a community service for children and as an educational opportunity for the PA students. 

The first SIU PA Doll Clinic was in March, 2013. We have done one every year since then, with the exception of 2021 and 2022, during the pandemic. Head Start officials contacted PA Program Director Don Diemer last year and asked if we could reinstate the Doll Clinic, which I was more than happy to do. 

While working as an in-patient hospital nurse in Philadelphia early in my career, I had observed first-hand the fear and trauma young children experienced during some necessary medical procedures. Needles and intravenous tests can be frightening. So can x-rays, tongue depressors, ear exams and strep screens. 

Play is well-known as important ‘work’ for children. It allows them to be creative, express emotion and develop language and socialization skills. Fantasy play, in particular, allows them to try on adult roles and approach stressful and scary events from a safe place. The Doll Clinic is an example of adult-directed fantasy play. It provides a structure that allows children to watch, touch, talk and learn about things that scare them. In a position of safety, play allows them to better understand and work through their fears of many things, including health care procedures.

The Doll Clinic is not only a fun and engaging community experience but it also gives the PA and Lincoln Scholar students the opportunity to interact with and learn about young children. By taking part in adult-directed play, they get to hear, appreciate and respond to the thoughts, beliefs and understanding (or misunderstanding) of young children. When working with children and families in their later lives, the new clinicians will carry with them the experience of helping children work through their fears and stressful life experiences and hopefully share that knowledge with their parents as well.


Buzz care at Doll Clinic

The students also put real health education into practice, by their interactions with individual children, when the kiddos bring their babies in to see “the doctor.” In addition, the PA students must prepare and present a health education topic in a developmentally appropriate manner to a classroom of preschool children. Every third year, the students also get the opportunity to work with autistic and developmentally challenged children at the Murphysboro Head Start.

All Head Start children come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes. The Doll Clinic gives them the opportunity to play with and have the undivided individual attention of bright, engaging and caring young adults on the cusp of their professional career. In addition to the time and energy of the students, the PA Program has also been very generous in providing faculty time, as well as toothpaste, toothbrushes, sunglasses and a new book for each of the children. Faculty, staff, and students in Family and Community Medicine, The Lincoln Scholars and the PA program have also given many new and gently used dolls and stuffed animals that are available for adoption at the clinic.

One quick story:

After our inaugural doll clinic, I was talking with a pediatric nurse practitioner at the Center for Medical Arts. She told me that she knew all about the Doll Clinic, which was a surprise to me. One of her preschool patients came in with a teddy bear who had a Band-aid on his leg and a splint on his arm. The little girl proceeded to tell her all about taking her bear to “the doctor” and what happened there. When the little girl had to have some testing and blood drawn that day, they used her experience with her bear to talk her through the processes. The PNP was sure that because of that, the testing procedures went smoothly.

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