Teddy bears are more than just toys at St. Clare Hospital. They’re a symbol of hope.

For the past five years, the Baraboo health care center has been giving its patients stuffed animals as a way to cope with the stress of emergency care. Hospital staff says the teddy bears provide both young and old patients with a sense of familiarity and comfort.

“There’s something about the teddy bears that is calming and soothing,” said St. Clare emergency room nurse Diane Barfkench. “It’s something that patients can concentrate on — it’s soft, they can hold tight to it and they don’t have to give it back when we’re done.”

Patients can choose a stuffed animal from a special Christmas tree in the hospital’s emergency department that is decorated with more than a dozen teddy bears. While the teddies are helpful in comforting kids, St. Clare ER tech Chrystal Woolever said the stuffed animals are also beneficial for geriatric and dementia patients.

“From the time you’re born, you see them growing up, so it’s a familiar thing from their childhood, and they can relate to the teddy bear,” she said. “It’s something that they can remember from their long-term memory.”

St. Clare’s “Teddy Bear Project” started in December 2012 when Michelle Zuelke, general manager of Outlets at The Dells, asked if the hospital would have use for teddy bear donations from the Build-A-Bear Workshop there. The store had a Christmas promotion at the time, where anyone who purchased merchandise could also buy a premade teddy for a nominal cost and either keep the bear or donate it to a local charity.

Knowing St. Clare’s emergency department provides care to many children each year, hospital leaders accepted the offer. The program has since expanded to providing patients with about 55 teddy bears each month, and the need for more is growing.

In addition to providing comfort and familiarity, St. Clare Treatment and Recovery Center Director Kim Lohman said the stuffed animals are often a symbol of hope for patients. Lohman said a woman came to the hospital last year to get treatment for the first time, and shortly after her husband died of a heart attack. They had a daughter who was 4 years old at the time.

“She asked if we would talk to her daughter about her father’s death,” Lohman said. “We got a teddy bear for her, and she still carries it with her.”

Lohman said many patients undergoing addiction treatments find the stuffed animals beneficial throughout their recovery process. Hospital staff includes a crisis hotline number on the teddy bears that patients can call if they feel they might relapse.

Lohman said the stuffed animals often create a connection to the safety and security that patients associate with the treatment center.

“A lot of times, that teddy bear is the one thing they hold on to,” Lohman said. “They may have lost their housing and are living on the streets, but they carry the teddy bear with them. It’s a really nice way for them to have hope.”

Hospital leaders plan to continue the Teddy Bear Project moving forward. To get involved, readers can purchase and donate a teddy from Outlets at The Dells’ Build-A-Bear location or contact the St. Clare Foundation at 608-356-1449.

Follow Jake Prinsen on Twitter @prinsenjake

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Baraboo News Republic Reporter