Last year, Heather Bailey had an epiphany about how she could do several things she loves all at once.
Ms. Bailey, who is about to graduate from the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center Paul L. Foster School of Medicine in El Paso, is a big fan of “costuming”: Dressing up as a character from a movie – often a princess – to attend comic conventions and other events.
“[In the summer of 2016], I wore a princess costume to a convention just for my personal enjoyment, and all of the children [at the convention] just had such a wonderful reaction to that,” she said. “They come up to you and they think you’re real. And within five minutes, you are real.”
Ms. Bailey, who as a medical student has seen her share of children in pediatric and oncology wards, realized those patients would likely share that same excitement.
“I thought, ‘What a wonderful thing it would be if I could wear this costume for other kids,’” she said. “And I started making more costumes, and I coerced my classmates into doing it with me.”
With that, the Happily Ever After Healers was born.
The group of about eight medical students visits sick children in local hospitals, as well as GiGi’s Playhouse El Paso (a medical and emotional support center for children with Down syndrome), kids at the Fort Bliss Army post, and those getting help from the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Jennifer Nielsen, another fourth-year student at the Foster School of Medicine, said dressing up is just a small part of each volunteer performance.
“We sing songs, we read stories to kids, we dance with them – whatever the event warrants,” she said.
Princess for a day
Young children frequently grow up adoring female heroes they see in animated movies, like Elsa from Frozen or the title character from Moana.
For trademark reasons, the Happily Ever After Healers don’t identify as specific movie characters, Ms. Nielsen said. Instead, they use generic names such as “ice princess” or “island princess.”
And for the past year, they’ve had no shortage of opportunities to make appearances.
“We just started finding events around town,” she said. “It’s not hard when you say ‘free princesses volunteering for children’s events’ to get calls.”
One thing they found out quickly is that children know their princesses, and they are unforgiving of mistakes, Ms. Bailey said.
“The first time I was putting my costume together, I didn’t have shoes that looked ice princess-appropriate,” she said. “The kids will walk up to you and say, ‘Those aren’t her shoes.’”
That’s why everyone is expected to pay close attention to all the details – makeup, wigs, and even mannerisms, Ms. Bailey said. The princesses also have to know everything there is to know about their character because kids ask questions, and the answers need to be true to their character.
“It’s all to transport the children to this magical place, so you have to get the illusion right or else they don’t believe you,” she said. “But if they do, it’s completely real.”
That magic doesn’t stop with the kids. Adults give the princesses hugs and sing along. Usually though, adults just enjoy seeing the children’s reactions.
Noel Shaheen, another fourth-year student at the Foster School of Medicine, said she was dressed up as an island princess on a recent visit to the oncology ward at University Medical Center in El Paso when she came upon a girl who was about 3 years old. The girl was undergoing chemotherapy and had refused to interact with anyone for a long time.
“I knelt down next to her and began [to sing],” she said. “And about halfway through the song she finally budged and began to sing the song with me. She even smiled. Her mother was so happy that she took out her iPad and began recording us singing together as tears of joy rolled down her face.”
Ms. Bailey, who plans to specialize in psychiatry, said the most moving moment for her occurred by accident. She was walking through the hospital in costume and stopped to go to the bathroom. When she came out, she was greeted by a semicircle of girls screaming with pure excitement.
“It turned out that an entire family full of cousins was waiting on a family member to come out of surgery,” she said. “He’d been in an accident, and the whole family was worried. But suddenly, instead of wait and worry, we had a party.”
Unfortunately, the Happily Ever After Healers will be, well, happily ever after this summer. Most are about to enter their residencies, so they will be scattered across the country soon.
Both Ms. Bailey and Ms. Nielsen said they plan to continue being part-time princesses wherever they land professionally, and so do the other members of their group. Ms. Nielsen, who plans to go into primary care, said she thinks dressing up as a princess has helped her learn the patience to be a better doctor.
“After a few hours, your wig is giving you a headache, sweat is dripping down your back, and your corset is digging into your sides,” she said. “However, you must continue to smile and play the part. … Finally, when it is time to go, yet another little kid calls out your name, runs up to you, and begs for just one more picture with a princess.
“That scenario is very similar to what it is going to be like as a doctor. There are going to be long hard days, and when your shift is over and you want nothing more than to go home, one more patient is going to come knocking on the door and desperately want your help.”
Ms. Bailey said the Happily Ever After Healers has become a creative outlet that she can’t imagine living without.
“It feels like I’m cheating by listing it on residency applications because they ask about my volunteer experience, but actually I’m just playing,” she said. “It happens to benefit everybody, including me.”
Tex Med. 2018;114(4):36-37
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