Dr. Jessica So is the type of mom one might imagine Meredith, from “Grey’s Anatomy,” to be at home ― teaching her kids to handle a scalpel and identify organs and muscle groups at an age when other kids are still trying to figure out how to hold their own spoon.
This California-based mother and board-certified dermatologist painstakingly recreates anatomically accurate body parts in play dough, so her curious preschooler son can assist her with mock surgical procedures. She shares videos of their procedures under the hashtag #playdoughsurgery.
For his fourth birthday, she went big and surprised her son by constructing the torso of a pregnant woman in play dough, so he could perform a Caesarian section. So far, this surgery has had more than 4.1 million views on Twitter ― not bad for the work of a very junior intern.
See the moment when the play-dough patient’s baby, Spiderman ― and his amniotic spidey-sack ― emerge from their playdough womb in the video below:
Dr. So’s son loves learning about the human body and the work of surgeons. “I suspect some of his interest stems from a natural curiosity for my work as a physician, while I am away from the home all day,” Dr. So said in an interview with HuffPost Canada.
“While we do talk about the different medical problems I treat, most of these conversations occur as part of a larger ongoing discussion about the calling of a physician—the joys, sorrows, and sacred honour of being entrusted to care for others,” said Dr. So.
It all started when Dr. So’s son was three. He had been saying, “I can’t wait to be a surgeon one day, Mommy,” and Dr. So told him about the long road to practicing his profession of choice. Talk of medical school, specializations, residencies and the likes was met with toddler protests of, “But I want to be a surgeon now!”
So during his nap that day, the medically minded mom made some play dough in the kitchen and then built the body parts required their first case ― an open gallbladder removal. Dr. So recalled that her son was “absolutely delighted,” as she walked him through the play surgery.
“Again! Let’s do it again!,” he said. And they did. Five more times in succession.
Watch their first procedure together ― a successful cholecystectomy ― in the video below:
Since then, they’ve tackled a host of medical procedures together, including a hernia repair, whipple procedure, nail matrix biopsy and thyroidectomy.
The inspiration often comes from life. “For example, when we had a talk about caution for the neck during horseplay with his younger sister, we reviewed the critical structures in the neck then did a few neck surgeries for him to see the major vessels and trachea and understand their function,” said Dr. So.
The mom-son team has also taken on play-dough surgeries like those that their family members were going through, “to better understand their need for care and recovery,” explained Dr. So.
Before scrubbing in
When they’re preparing for a play-dough procedure, Dr. So has to familiarize herself with the details first. “I have pulled out old textbooks from medical school, messaged many colleagues for opinions on case scenarios and surgical approaches, and researched literature about specialties outside of my own,” she said.
She then starts surgical playtime with a simple explanation of the dough patient’s medical condition, then she’ll talk her son through the surgical approach they’ll take. Sometimes they’ll watch YouTube videos of a real procedure, or sometimes she’ll do a simple sketch. After that, like any little kid, her son will be full of questions.
“The discussions are seldom limited to the medical aspect,” Dr. So said. “He often asks questions about pain, patient comfort, risks when complications occur, and long term consequences of a surgery.”
A thing for bones
So far the orthopedic procedures are the preschool surgeon’s favourite ― “but the hardest to do!” said Mom. “As a four-year old, he loves slinging a hammer and working with drills,” she added.
But as Doctor Pimple Popper (one of his personal heroes) would surely acknowledge, the child-surgeon is also talented, when it comes to working with zits.
See him “dab, dab, dab, dab, dab” freshly liberated pus from the face of his patient in the video below.
The benefits of operating-room play
Dr. So has observed her son developing many important skills from their surgery play, including fine-motor skills, self-control and problem solving. He has also developed a deeper “respect for his own body and others.”
One of the best benefits is mutual: “I savour this time we connect together, and being able to share my love for my profession.
An enthusiastic following
Since Dr. So and her son began sharing #playdoughsurgeries, they’ve received many messages of thanks and encouragement.
“My favourite are those from parents and educators of children with similar interests in the human body, who have been inspired at an early age to pursue a career in medicine, or to work even harder in their studies to reach their goals,” Dr. So said.
The physician has also heard from adults who have used the videos to facilitate discussions with their families about a surgery, in a way that alleviated fear and worry.
“Child-life specialists use play therapy to help children and families in a similar fashion,” she said. “And I feel honoured that our videos have been used in this way.”
While there’s an amazing element of education involved, above all Dr. So and her son do their surgeries because they find them fun. “I promised my son I’d keep doing them for as long as he wanted me too,” said Dr. So.
In play as in life, sometimes surgeries don’t go to plan. Watch some of their funniest “learning moments” in the blooper reel below.