Friends in the hospital

They’re there when times are tough. “Giggle Doctors” support children and their parents before and after operations. A report from Lucerne Children’s Hospital.

15.12.2020

Gabriela Braun

Perhaps little Nael is dreaming right now of a stegosaurus and a tyrannosaurus, who are taking great gulps of water from the nearby lake. Or of kindergarten dinosaurs and their dinosaur grandpas popping bubbles together. But just three hours ago, the five-year-old told red-nosed Dr Wolle that there was no such thing as a kindergarten dinosaur. “Because dinosaurs don’t go to school!” Nael and Dr Wolle laughed. At that moment, Nael’s worries about his imminent operation floated away like a bubble. 

Now his parents Sandra and Tiago S. are with “Giggle Doctor” Dr Wolle in the recovery room of the day clinic at the Lucerne Children’s Hospital, waiting for Nael to come round from the anaesthetic. It is shortly before midday, and it looks like the one-and-a-half hour operation has been a success. A surgeon opened up the swollen scar at the back of Nael’s head and neatly sewed it up again. The boy was born with a hole in his head. While the wound closed, the scar became itchy and was often inflamed. All that should now be a thing of the past. When Nael lifts his heavy lids a few minutes later, he is glad to see his mum and dad as well as his new friend Dr Wolle at his bedside. “Hi there, Nael,” he says gently. “Tell me, what were you dreaming about? Dinosaurs?” His little patient smiles. 

Dr Wolle lifts spirits

Nael’s day begins earlier than normal today. It is just 7.15 a.m. when his mother leads him by the hand into the day clinic on the first floor of the Lucerne Children’s Hospital, part of the city’s Kantonsspital. The boy seems nervous. Rather than spending this Wednesday morning with his friends at kindergarten, he’s going to hospital. 

Ward nurse Eliane Schärli welcomes Nael and Sandra S. She explains how the operation will unfold and begins the first preparations – measuring Nael’s height and weight, and making sure he hasn’t had anything to eat this morning. It’s important that Nael has an empty stomach for the operation. Standing next to Sister Schärli is the funny-looking Dr Wolle, a Giggle Doctor with the Theodora Foundation. “Hi there, I’m Dr Wolle!” he says, his crazy curls flapping. Nael smiles, still shy. 

Support that reduces stress

Giggle Doctor Dr Wolle helps nursing staff in their work by looking after all the children who are undergoing operations this morning. He laughs with them, improvises, does magic tricks, offers them diversion. It has only been a few years that the Giggle Doctors have been supporting children before and after operations. It’s been a success. The need on the part of hospitals and parents was great. Studies show that this type of support greatly reduces the mental strain on children. As a partner of the Theodora Foundation, Helsana supports the valuable work performed by the Giggle Doctors. 

Suddenly, Dr Wolle conjures a little dinosaur from his smock pocket. And then another. Nael’s eyes widen and he says excitedly, “That’s a stegosaurus!” It just so happens that Nael loves dinosaurs. Dr Wolle had no idea. Nael is clearly impressed and curious to see what other tricks this amazing doctor has up his sleeve. Dr Wolle blows up balloons with a hand pump and twists them into a purple dog, which Nael wants to take home to his sister. The Giggle Doctor twists another balloon into a basketball hoop and gets Nael to shoot at it with a tiger balloon. It turns into a game between the two and Nael’s mum. Nael and his mother are now in cheerful competition, but the rulebook is discreetly forgotten. 

Releasing tension before the operation

Nael is the decisive winner. There’s a playground atmosphere and the boy’s mood has completely turned around. Sandra S. smiles and says, “I wasn’t expecting this to be such a fun morning.” Dr Wolle has placed a medal round her beaming son’s neck.

But a Giggle Doctor also knows when it’s time to give the young patient and their parents some space. This is quiet time now, and an opportunity to discuss the operation with the nursing staff. Dr Wolle always takes a step back in these moments. Nael presses against his mum and wants a hug. He wants to be comforted, because despite all the diversion and fun, Nael is still a little nervous. 

For the Giggle Doctors, supporting children during operations doesn’t mean putting on a show, it’s about responding to the needs and the mood of each patient – and incorporating pre-operative care. “There is a routine to the nursing, and I keep out of the way,” says Dr Wolle. The Giggle Doctor and the nursing staff are clearly in sync with each other. Dr Wolle and Eliane Schärli deftly integrate certain steps into the game that are required in preparation for surgery. 

Special sleeping syrup

Now it is time for Nael to take a sedative. Dr Wolle gets the five-year-old in the right mood. Nael has changed and is now wearing a hospital gown. The Giggle Doctor holds up his bubble machine, which emits music. Nael starts bursting the bubbles with his bare foot and is amazed to see that the bubbles somehow remain intact. Meanwhile, Dr Wolle is telling Nael about the syrup he is about to take, and that they will be drinking a toast. 

Soon the ward nurse appears with two identical little plastic cups. Nael gets the cup which has juice mixed with the medicine, Dr Wolle just the juice. The two toast each other and talk about the warm air mattress awaiting Nael in the operation theatre. And dreams of dinosaurs, of course. They count how many dinosaurs he might dream about. After a few minutes, the boy says, “I feel so sleepy now.”

Plenty of positive feedback

The Theodora Foundation currently carries out this kind of operation support in seven Swiss hospitals every week. Giggle Doctor Wolle loves the work. “It is great when we and the nursing stuff work so well together.” Eliane Schärli and her colleagues at the Luzerner Kantonsspital value the Giggle Doctors in their colourful smocks. They make their hectic working day a little easier, because the Giggle Doctors are good at filling in waiting time. “Above all, they have a very good sense of what each child needs,” says Schärli. “We notice that children are calm and content when they come round if they’re supported by one of the Giggle Doctors.” They have had plenty of positive feedback from parents. 

Anaesthetist Thomas Hurni also looks forward to every day that the Giggle Doctors are on duty in his ward to support the children before and after their operations. Dr Wolle and a nurse roll Nael’s bed towards the lift, where the boy says goodbye to his mum. He seems relaxed. Then he and his bed take the lift down to the operation theatre. 

Once they get there, the Giggle Doctor immediately incorporates anaesthetist Hurni into the fantasy world that he and Nael have devised. Thomas Hurni is quite surprised to find that he is in the company of a dinosaur expert. The two men move the boy over to the promised warm air mattress and administer an anaesthetic with a fruit flavour – “air dessert”, as they call it. Nael takes a deep breath and drifts off. The two wish him sweet dreams of dinosaurs. And Nael is already fast asleep. 

Further information

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