The Muppets taught us that it's not easy being green. It's even harder to be a sick kid, stuck in a hospital room. To make the experience tolerable, staff of the Child Life Department at John R. Oshei Children's Hospital work to ensure that life remains as normal as possible for hospitalized children and teens.
They also invite a variety of visitors to help lift spirits and brighten the day for the young patients and their families. Visitors include superheroes, princesses and musicians, just to name a few.
One special guest who cheers up the kids is Cameron Garrity, who, dressed in a homemade Big Bird costume, makes regular visits to the hospital to try to pull a smile from the kids. Garrity stops by when his time allows carrying his costume, pops into an empty room, and reappears as a giant canary known as Dr. Bird. A Child Life specialist walks him through every floor to visit kids. If the patient is up to it, Dr. Bird will enter the room or visit from the doorway. Using a familiar falsetto, he will greet the patients and engage in happy conversation.
"Our patients love visits from Dr. Bird," said Sue Mirabella, entertainment/donation coordinator for Children's Hospital "Our families and staff love his visits as well."
"It brightens everyone's day," Garrity said. "The new hospital is already such a bright and vivid space, but seeing seven and a half feet of bright yellow and orange really brings a sunny day to everyone, even the staff and parents."
"Entertainment visits have immediate positive impact upon our patients," explained Mirabella. "On many occasions, we have entered rooms of patients who aren't feeling well. They are given an option as to whether they would like a character/entertainment visit. As soon as the character or performer interacts with patients, they appear to be more relaxed and their whole demeanor changes. It's so nice to hear parents say that it's the first time that the child has smiled during his or her hospital stay. Entertainment visits give patients an opportunity to participate in normal events and have some fun in spite of challenging circumstances."
"When you're a patient and you go (to the hospital) regularly, you're kind of just thinking about yourself because you're sick, you want to make sure you come out feeling better, you want to make sure that you're going through things the way you need to, to heal. To be in the places from an outside perspective where I'm going from space to space and seeing all the different people who are there and what the community at a hospital really looks like, it's given me a whole new respect and appreciation for what those places do and how everybody on the team contributes," said Garrity, who now works as a creative media developer for the Diocese of Buffalo.
He knows what he's talking about. Dr. Bird, was once on the other side of the stethoscope.
When he was a youngster, he was sick with strep throat often, he pulled a stomach muscle and got hit by car. In junior and senior high school, he had a mitochondrial disease, which exhibited symptoms of a host of other diseases. He underwent frequent colonoscopies and sinus clean outs.
"By the time I had graduated college, I had undergone anesthesia over 75 times, for relatively minor things," the now healthy 28-year-old explained. "I would joke for many years that I had to go to get my nose cleaned more than I got haircuts."
During that time, he grew very close with the nurses, the doctors and the Child Life staff at the former Women's and Children's Hospital on Bryant Street. He was really enamored by the work the Child Life therapists did. "Everyone was so welcoming and really made that experience that could have been very dark and depressing into feeling like it was a second home. I think that kept me just as healthy in a lot of ways as the actual procedures did," he said.
A love of puppetry and The Muppets helped him develop his way of giving back. The desire to do so came from his friends at Canisius High School.
The peak of his hospital stays happened during his years at the Buffalo educational institution. He missed the first two weeks of classes and had major stomach surgery the following April, causing him to miss the last month and a half of school. Twice the clock in his hospital room broke, making it feel as if time was standing still.
"No less than three times a week, when I was having those long stays, was I visited by teachers from Canisius. I was visited by my classmates during their lunch breaks. The nurse and the vice principal were always coming by to see how I was doing," he recalled. "To have people come from the outside world, who were familiar faces, who were people I loved and to know they were rooting for me was really important, because it can feel very isolated."
It made him realize the importance of community and being there for other people.
"That's baked into everything at Canisius High School, but I was able to experience that firsthand."