Teddy Bear Gifts Bring Joy to Women with Cancer

05/08/03    Portland, Ore.

What started out as an idea to help women recovering from cancer has turned into a mountain of cuddly teddy bears.

Fabio Cappuccini, M.D., admits he likes to spoil all of his patients. His eyes water as he says this. His patients are all women, and they all have cancer.

"These women wake up from surgery. They are hurt and diminished physically. The cancers they have belong only to women. And where these cancers are affects them intrinsically as women, as feminine beings. I want to help them in any way I can. I wanted to give my patients a little personal touch," said Cappuccini, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine.

When he was in his residency program at the University of California, Irvine there was a surgeon who gave out teddy bears to breast cancer patients.

"I said to myself then that I wanted to do something like that when I was in practice."

Cappuccini speaks with an Italian accent. His words and his direct gaze as he talks are loaded with the compassion he feels for women with cancer.

So, he, too, decided several months ago to be sure each of his patients would be given a teddy bear.

Cappuccini then asked Wendy Mitchell, M.A., program manager for the Center for Women's Health, if she would give bears to his patients as they recover from surgery.

"I thought Wendy would be best to do this for me. It does not come naturally to me. I am the one who talks to them about their cancer, their surgery and their medical needs. I just thought Wendy would be able to do this so much better," he said.

Mitchell searched out the best bears. She picked a brown, soft, lightweight and cuddly model called Marmalade, just the right size, feel and shape for a woman to hold to her chest. Mitchell got two women donors to give $100 each, and the Teddy Bear Program began. But she needed more money. Instead of birthday presents this year, she asked her husband, Raymond, to ask her friends if they would like to donate $7.50 for the cost of one teddy bear. Raymond sent out 250 birthday letters, and soon the teddy bear money was tumbling in -- $7,000 worth. That was enough for 933 bears.

Cappuccini also asked his colleague Joanna Cain, M.D., professor and chairwoman of obstetrics and gynecology, OHSU School of Medicine, if she wanted to give teddy bears to her surgical cancer patients. Cain is the director of the OHSU Center for Women's Health.

"I was skeptical. It felt odd at first, but when I saw a patient clutching it -- like a lifeline, I realized Fabio had truly seen the need. Furthermore, it was a perfect expression of the fact that we care personally about each patient we care for, and we often don't have tangible ways to show that to our patients," Cain said.

So far, 45 teddy bears have been delivered to women as they lie recovering in their hospital beds.

"The women feel overwhelmed with joy from this personal touch. They are surprised this comes from their doctor. Sometimes it's just their body language. Their eyes well up with tears of joy. They take the teddy bear and hold it to their chests hoping this teddy bear from their doctor, this power of touch, will get them through this. They know there's a community of well-wishers out there pulling for them. It is such an honor for me to deliver these," Mitchell said.

Mitchell, who has also worked as a mental health therapist and has been a hospice volunteer, said the bears also create a chance for the women to talk with her. One patient, who was blind, rubbed the soft fur of the teddy bear against her face for comfort.

Cappuccini said he doesn't want to become popular because of his teddy bear gifts.

"I want to be known as a cutting-edge specialist for women's cancers. But there's no doubt. All patients love the teddy bears."

As far as his patients, they will likely remember Cappuccini for what he did for them, but also for the teddy bear gifts.

"It comforts them. They were moved to know that we cared for them as real people. It was there to remind them that they mattered, and it reminded them of all sorts of positive times in their lives that they could draw strength from," said Cain.

 

To contribute a teddy bear:
If you would like to give to the OHSU Center for Women's Health Teddy Bear Program, please call 503 494-1295, or send a donation to the OHSU Foundation, 1121 S.W. Salmon St., Suite 200, Portland, OR 97205-2021.

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