Playing Doctor with Gail Zayka's Lifelike Dolls Helps Kids Facing Surgery Get Over Their Fears

updated 09/14/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It started as a simple gift to Massachusetts General Hospital, where Gail Zayka's 3-year-old son, Teddy, had undergone surgery. Teddy's hospital roommate was scheduled to get a catheter, and his father, a doctor, couldn't find an anatomically correct male doll to explain the procedure to his son. "The catheter is scary to children," Zayka says. "They think it's never coming out." So she decided to make a doll for demonstrations.

It took her three months to complete a prototype. "I showed it to a neurologist who is a big muckety-muck," Zayka recalls, "and he ran up and down the hospital hall saying, 'Look what this lady has made!' "

Six years later hospitals in nearly all 50 states and nine countries have bought Zayka's anatomically correct Zaadi Dolls, each three feet high and containing 16 internal organs plus major veins and arteries. Many have acquired names—a Florida hospital calls its female doll "Little Organ Annie"—and hospital personnel find them superb at assuaging kids' fears. "We've been using them for four years, mostly pre-operatively, and we've found that children tend to be more relaxed going into surgery," says Brenda Clover, a pediatrics therapist at Framingham Union Hospital in Framingham, Mass.

The dolls are child-size because, Zayka explains, "young children usually don't have fine motor skills to manipulate small objects." She uses different, appropriate materials for each organ: The heart is red corduroy to make it "look tough," the lungs spongy and pink, the gall bladder green sailcloth, and the liver a purplish velveteen. Each comes with two extra faces, one sleeping and one sad, to help kids understand that they will be asleep during the operation and that it's okay to feel bad at such times. All the dolls have three areas where intravenous lines can be applied, and the male and female dolls can be used to illustrate different medical procedures. (Zayka relied on doctors and nurses to suggest which physical features would be most useful for demonstrations.) The female has a darker complexion, because kids come in all colors, and removable hair and a scarf to explain the effects of chemotherapy. It also has a transplantable kidney, a broken lower leg, and reproductive organs to help hospital personnel explain sexual abuse. The male has a breakable arm, a broken femur(thigh-bone), a traction site, a removable hernia and an eye patch.

The 41-year-old inventor of the dolls grew up in Attleboro, Mass. "We were poor but I didn't know it," she says. She wanted to be a veterinarian, but she got sidetracked into medical technology and health science. She married Metrophane (Mike) Zayka, who runs a machine shop, in 1968, and they live on 20 acres in Bolton, Mass., with their two adopted children, Teddy, now 9, and Stephanie, 3. "I've been making my own clothes since I was about 12," Zayka says, and she has also created stuffed animals and dolls for her children. To insure accuracy on her first Zaadi Doll, she used Teddy as a model. "I traced his feet," she says. "I measured all the proportions of his body."

The appearance of the first dolls at Mass General prompted other hospitals to ask for them, and Zayka, charging $200 to $400 each, went into partnership with Ernest G. Dixon Jr., Mike's accountant. Combining parts of their last names, they called their company Zaadi and based it in Lowell, Mass. The dolls are actually made in Hong Kong because no U.S. toy company was interested in the idea.

So far Zayka and Dixon have sold 700 dolls, and last year they earned $10,000, which they've put back into the business. Zayka is now working on two more prototypes. One, about the size of a Cabbage Patch doll and intended for general sale, would have basic organs but not as many technical features as the larger version. The other is a hand puppet with eye, ear and throat details, for use by specialists. "It's so emotionally satisfying," Zayka says. "This is my purpose in life."

As for the original model for all these dolls, he still has one of the earliest Zaadis and now considers it more than a toy. Says Teddy, solemnly: "I operate on it."

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