AS MARTY POSTLETHWAIT REMEMbers it, her son Miles was home from school that day three years ago and acting "kind of crabby." Miles, now 9, who suffers from congenital heart and intestinal defects, was having trouble with his colostomy bag. Plus he'd just found out from his mother that he would never be able to play football. "You know, Mom," Postlethwait, 36, recalls him saying, "I really wish I had a friend that was just like me." She reminded him of all the great friends he had in the neighborhood. But Miles meant someone exactly like him—someone with an incision scar down his chest and who'd had his heart fixed. "I remember kind of tilting my head," says Marty, "and thinking, 'My God, he's right. He doesn't.' "
Three years later, thanks to the Postlethwaits of Olathe, Kans., Miles and thousands of other chronically ill children have friends called Shadow Buddies, who sport the same surgery scars, insulin packs and catheters that they do. The Buddies, used in 58 hospitals across the country, are cloth dolls that wear hospital gowns instead of clothes and make kids suffering from frightening medical conditions feel less alone. A year and a half into production of their Shadow Buddies line, Postle-thwait and her son have designed 16 Miles-inspired dolls, including a Heart Buddy (which comes with a zipper scar and a mended red heart), an Oncology Buddy (with thinning hair) and a Diabetic Buddy (with a fanny pack for insulin, a syringe and an apple).
"Younger kids may not know how to write down their feelings. They express themselves by doing," says Eileen Clark, a child-life specialist at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Clark says she gives the Shadow Buddy to the kids in her oncology unit so they can "show people that they have this catheter sticking out of their chests and so does this special doll. In a way, it gives them a kind of connection."
Through the years, the Postlethwaits have become experts on the anxiety children feel about hospitals and surgery. The couple met 12 years ago when Marty traded in the wedding ring from her failed first marriage at a shop where Eric, 40, was a jeweler. They wed soon after, and Eric adopted Marty's daughters: Melissa, now 14, and Mallory, 12. Miles, born in 1987 with heart, intestine and kidney problems, has since weathered 34 operations, including open-heart surgery, an appendectomy and several colostomies. During his first four years his parents spent so much time at the hospital they had to hire a nanny to care for their girls. "I tease everyone that Miles was 4½ before Eric and I ever slept alone," says Marty.
In 1994, Postlethwait was working part-time for an accountant when her son mentioned his desire for a buddy. "I kind of quizzed him: 'What would you want it to look like?' " she says. "What would make you feel good when you're sick?" Miles wanted a "friend" he could carry back and forth to the hospital. Says Miles: "I told her that I wanted to see heart eyes for love," and a perpetual smile on the friend's face.
Mother and son spent a year and a half planning the Buddies. They wanted dolls that were simple and symbolic but not so specific that they would frighten a child. In June 1995, Miles, Marty and a friend who could sew began to piece together a demo doll in the living room of their four-bedroom home. "The first one we made looked like a Conehead," Marty says. Then "we couldn't get the size right, and it was lumpy."
Five days later they had three cloth prototypes, and in September 1995, Marty placed an order with a Wisconsin manufacturer for 5,000 dolls. The first run included the Heart Buddy and the Ostomy Buddy (which includes a stoma, an opening in the abdominal wall that permits the passage of waste) because they represent Miles's conditions. To date, Eric and Marty, who both quit their jobs to work full time for Shadow Buddies, have distributed more than 13,000 dolls. Though the dolls sell for $10 each, many kids get them free from the hospitals, which stock them through grants and corporate donations.
These days Miles never goes into the hospital without his Buddy. "Nine and a half years ago," says Marty, "when the doctors came out and said Miles is going to have a colostomy—he's going to have a stoma—I'll never forget—I looked at my husband and said, 'What is a stoma?' " Now, Marty says, she wishes someone had said to her, " 'Look, we've got a Buddy. This is exactly what's going to happen.' I think it really would have helped to ease my anxiety."
LORNA GRISBY in Olathe
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