'Healing Helpers' provide comfort for kids undergoing surgeries

Group educates young patients

By Rachel Garceau
Copyright 2019 CNN

Most parents know that stuffed animals can often bring comfort to kids when human hugs aren't available.

KUNA, Idaho - Most parents know that stuffed animals can often bring comfort to kids when human hugs aren't available.

This is especially true for children going through complicated--and often scary--medical procedures.

So six years ago, Kuna residents Michael and Lani-lee Almich launched a business born of their own family's desire for a way to communicate with, and comfort, their young daughter, Annabelle, who had a bit of a rough start to her young life.

As Lani-Lee explains, "She was born with half a heart...It's called Hypoplastic Right Hheart Syndrome. Her whole heart was there, but only half of it was functioning."

That meant little Annabelle had to undergo three open-heart surgeries in three years. Her dad Michael says, "They kind of had to replumb and change the way the blood flows through her heart."

Through it all, Lani-lee and Michael struggled with how to explain the invasive medical procedures to a toddler.

Says Lani-Lee, "I wanted her to understand why she had her 'zipper'--that's what we've always called it, because the doctors go in and work on things and zip it back up."

So for Annabelle's second birthday, Lani-lee created Abby, a teddy bear with a zip-up pocket on her chest and half of a red felt heart to tuck inside, as a way to illustrate to Annabelle her intricate surgeries--on her own level.

"Those scars are going to be with her for the rest of her life," Michael says. "So as [Annabelle] develops, as she gets older and she's had questions along the way, we've been able to take Abby and use Abby to explain, 'well, this is what the doctors had to do.'"

After creating Abby, the Almichs found they weren't the only family needing this resource.

In fact, the Kuna couple discovered many parents with kids undergoing surgeries felt just as helpless as they had.

"There are families all over the world that are hurting and they don't quite know how to express that hurt or to explain why their child is going through this," Michael told 6 On Your Side.

So in 2013, the Almichs founded Healing Helpers , creating personalized stuffed animals as an emotional and educational tool for kids--and adults--going through medical procedures.

Michel says it is their way of helping families cope with difficult circumstances. "Being overcome by that feeling of powerlessness and not being able to, to help... Sorry. That's where it is for me, because this gave us a way. And i know there's dads and mom out there feeling the same way that we felt in those moments, there's nothing that we can do and this is our answer to that."

Today, the Healing Helpers line extends far beyond teddy bears, with a variety of Helpers to choose from.

"We want not only each one to be educational and to form that bond with the child," Michael says, "but also to give words of encouragement like, 'you can do this,' 'this is possible.' and that 'you are strong.'"

Each Healing Helper is personally hand-sewn in the couple's Kuna home to match each recipient's unique surgery, from brain operations, to spinal surgery, to even having tonsils removed.

Lani-Lee says, "We've been able to specifically make an organ out of felt wherever on the body and make it match that particular kiddo."

The company has now made thousands of these huggable Helpers for families across the country and around the world, and Lani-lee says helping other families cope has helped their family heal.

"Sometimes you wonder why something happened to your kiddo or just like, 'why did this happen?' And Healing Helpers has been a way for us to heal."

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