Marcella Johnson planned to mark the 20th anniversary of her Encinitas, California, United States-based non-profit, The Comfort Cub, by handing out 1,000 therapeutic, weighted teddy bears to families suffering from traumatic loss.
Now some of them are headed to frontline medical workers dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Hospitals are asking for the Comfort Cubs, not for their patients, but for their staff,” said Johnson, who started making the bears after her son George died from a rare genetic bone disorder minutes after he was born.
In the days that followed, she couldn’t understand why her arms ached.
She had what is now known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or Broken Heart Syndrome, a physiological reaction to trauma and grief.
Hers was eased unexpectedly when she picked up a terracotta flower pot left at George’s grave, clutched it to her chest and felt comforted.
Johnson made the first teddy bear herself, filling it with enough split peas to simulate the heft of a newborn.
She and her husband Matt, paid to have more manufactured and gave them to hospitals as gifts for mothers whose babies died.
Demand grew, Johnson formed a non-profit organisation, and now, more than 22,000 of the 4lb (1.8kg) cubs have been distributed around the country.
Along the way, their use has expanded. They were given to the families of the children and teachers killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
They went to those traumatised by the mass shooting at the Route 91 concert in Las Vegas, Nevada, almost three years ago.
“There’s something about this cub,” said Gina Kornfeind, a social worker and bereavement coordinator at the University of California, Los Angeles, Mattel Children’s Hospital, who has been giving the bears to grieving families for about six years.
“It just feels good in your arms. The weight of it, the peace it brings – it’s just a physical feeling of being comforted.”
Deep touch pressure
After Johnson made the first weighted teddy bear, she worried that people would think the idea was stupid or insulting.
In her head, she heard critics say, ‘Some woman has just lost a baby, and you want to give her a teddy bear?’
She showed it to a social worker at San Diego Hospice and asked, “What do you think?”
The social worker said, “Can you make 12 more?”
Gradually, other hospitals heard about it, and now the Comfort Cub is used throughout San Diego County, much of California and in about three dozen US states.
The bears get distributed through a combination of donations by Comfort Cub, purchases by hospitals and other facilities, and individuals buying them as gifts for other people.
They sell for US$49.95 (RM219.75) each and US$270 (RM1,187.81) for a case of six.
Hospitals sometimes buy them in bulk so they have them on hand as the need arises, and it’s not uncommon for one or two to wind up in a doctors’ lounge, where medical staff decompress after their shifts, and sometimes, need a hug, even if it’s from a stuffed animal.
At first, Johnson said, she didn’t understand why exactly the bears are soothing to people.
But now, more is known about “deep-touch pressure” and its ability to ease anxiety and stress. It’s the same idea behind weighted blankets.
Kornfeind said there are also psychological factors akin to the “transitional objects” kids sometimes hang on to – favourite stuffed animals or blankets – as they move into the next phases of their lives.
“It helps you keep it together when things feel out of control and the ground is shaky underneath you,” she said.
“In these times, we could all use transitional objects.”
About two weeks ago (April 2020), Kornfeind said, she got a phone call from a chaplain whose activities at the hospital – bedside visits, close interactions with families – have been interrupted by social-distancing restrictions.
The chaplain said she was feeling low and asked, “Could I borrow a Comfort Cub for the night?”
Then Kornfeind held a Zoom support session for residents (doctors-in-training) who are launching their careers in the middle of a public health crisis.
Many are thousands of miles away from families and friends. They live alone.
“Some are really having a hard time,” she said. “They’re scared.”
Johnson said she’s heard similar stories from other hospitals.
Doctors and nurses are sleeping at work or in hotels, afraid if they go home they’ll infect their loved ones.
They’re watching patients die alone because relatives aren’t allowed in.
They’re worried about not having enough protective gear.
Her response might seem trivial to some, but it’s what she knows: She’s sending Comfort Cubs.
Comfort Cub planned to celebrate its 20th anniversary by distributing 1,000 bears free over the next several months to people experiencing trauma of various kinds.
That project has shifted to coronavirus-related cases, Johnson said.
While hospitals have been contacting her about bears for their medical staff, members of the public are eligible too, and can apply through the non-profit’s website.
It has a Covid-19 banner for requests from anyone suffering the “ripple effects” of the pandemic: job loss, isolation and financial strain.
“So many people are being affected in this crisis,” Johnson said. “We’ll try to help as many as we can.” – The San Diego Union-Tribune/Tribune News Service