Listen in: This alligator has an important job. He's working with the Orlando Science Center and Nemours to get kids ready to go back to the doctor post-COVID.
Across the country and right here in Central Florida, some families have foregone yearly wellness visits due to the pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. When it comes to children, those missed check ups have resulted in routine childhood vaccinations being delayed across the state.
An Orlando hospital and science center have teamed up to get kids back in the swing of things with the help of some furry friends.
Read the full story below or listen to it by clicking on the clip at the top of the page.
Ella is a tiny white stuffed toy unicorn with bright pink hair. She’s wearing a miniature t-shirt that says Nemours Children’s Hospital. And right now she’s being measured and weighed.
“Whose coming to the doctor today. What's her name? Ella? Awesome. Let's measure Ella to see how tall she is. Should we measure from the top of her horn or the top of her head? Head. Perfect. We're going for accuracy.”
Ella and the other stuffed toy monkeys, alligators and elephants that sit in cardboard boxes on the fourth floor of the Orlando Science Center have an important job to do.
They’re teaching the hundreds of kids who have lined up for the Teddy Bear Affair at the science center about STEM and what to expect when they go to the doctor’s office. At different stations staffed by Nemours doctors, the kids walk through how to get an eye exam, cast and even an MRI, all by practicing these procedures on their toys.
Nemours Chief of Children’s Primary Care Dr. Tom Lacy says this guided play is crucial especially coming out of the latest COVID surge in Central Florida over the summer.
“I think COVID has increased anxiety, you know, across the board in children.”
Lacy says since the start of the pandemic, many parents have foregone yearly physicals and vaccines for their children as they didn’t want to expose them to COVID in a waiting room.
But he says skipping those visits might have backfired with many kids experiencing a real aversion toward going to the doctor’s.
“They hear things from television, they they see things going on, and I think they're more anxious, and that includes going to the doctor, especially if parents talk a lot about, I don't want to go to the doctor because I don't want to catch COVID."
Along with this heightened anxiety ahead of visits, there are short- and long-term health consequences for children who don’t regularly go to the doctor’s.
American Academy of Pediatrics Florida Chapter spokesperson Dr. Michael Muszynski says these kids may not get their yearly immunizations. Only about 79 percent of 2-year-olds in the state are fully vaccinated against a range of childhood illnesses this year, compared to 93.4 percent in 2020.
He says that could lead to measles and whooping cough outbreaks in Florida. And Muszynski says these visits are often the only opportunity a pediatrician or specialist has to pick up on health problems that require early intervention.
“You will miss things like growth delay, you will miss things like learning issues that might come up or perhaps early Autistic Spectrum Disorder."
Julie Wygle says she’s experiencing first hand the fear some children have surrounding going to the doctor. She brought her two little ones to the Orlando Science Center today, to get them better acquainted with the way things work again.
“But seeing their teddy bears go through it, they felt that ownership and that responsibility and taking care of them and they in talking about like their diet and how well they're exercising. It helped my daughter at three and my son at seven feel more comfortable."
Wygle says she hopes her children remember just how comfortable and good of an experience it was for their teddy bear friends to go to the doctor the next time they themselves actually have to go.
“I want them to be like, hey, I can do this. I took my teddy bear through it. I can do it too.”