JACKSONVILLE — McKenzie Reagan had one question for the surgeon who would be operating on her arm: How soon can I ride my horse?
"She would rather muck stalls than clean her room," Renee Reagan said of her daughter.
When the 9-year-old fourth-grader at Julington Creek Elementary School came to in the recovery room at Wolfson Children's Hospital, covering her incision was a surgical bandage cut in the shape of a horse head.
Danielle Walsh, 37, a Nemours Children's Clinic pediatric surgeon who grew up in Clearwater, delves into what turns her patients on as well as what is turning them off.
From the beginning, she tries to take the fear out of an inherently terrifying experience. When patients arrive at the pediatric operating room, music keyed to the age of the child is playing; frequently it's from a Disney movie. The child is asleep before anything as traumatic as an IV is attached. And when they come to, there's the best surprise of all — protecting the incision is a surgical bandage in the shape of a bunny, a little mermaid, a turtle or whatever corresponds with the season or the patient's interests.
"When these kids are going through something as traumatic as surgery, that one thing she does completely lightens the experience for them," Renee Reagan said.
Unusual bandages have become Walsh's trademark. When they see one on a patient, nurses know immediately who the surgeon was.
"If it distracts a kid from the discomfort, it's done its job," Walsh said, deftly wielding her surgical scissors to turn a plain bandage into a string of traditional paper dolls. "It doesn't take but a few seconds, and during wakeup, I have a good five-minute window where I can spend some time making a fancy dressing for them. A gator you can picture across somebody's belly, shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day. It's very individualized to the patient."
Walsh grew up in a crafty family. Her mother was a pharmacist; her father, a teacher. "I like to do things with my hands. Surgery and bandages are an extension of that."
The two came together when she was walking a resident through a procedure in Washington, D.C., and got bored while he was closing. A few snips, and the first fun bandage was created. Around the same time, she made young residents who weren't talented with a surgical knife practice the Japanese art of kirigami (paper cutting) using those knives.
"It started out of boredom, developed out of training others, and now it's a little bit of a signature," she said. "A few of the people I've trained say they do it now as well."
Hugh Griffenkranz, the physician assistant she calls her "right-hand man," often challenges Walsh's creativity, daring her to tackle a particularly difficult design. All are limited to the white of bandages and the purple of surgical marking pens, but she rarely uses those.
"To be honest, I'm not a very good drawer. I'm a better cutter — which is good for a surgeon."
One young two-sport athlete woke up from his double hernia surgery to find a baseball and bat on one side, a basketball on the other. A soccer player from a visiting team who played a game with appendicitis had a soccer ball over his incision.
She even has treats for those patients whose surgery can be performed laproscopically and doesn't require surgical bandages.
"I'm very fortunate to have a nursing staff who gets into being a part of this; they bought me the box," Walsh said, pulling it out and opening the lid to show dozens of brightly colored Band-Aids covered with Hot Wheels, Sponge Bob, Spider Man, Hello Kitty and a toy store full of other popular characters. "I try to let them choose their own Band-Aid. Kids don't have control over what happens to them, but they like being able to control their bandages."
Walsh is a storm of enthusiasm camouflaged by a calm demeanor that lifts to let out another burst of energy with each new topic of conversation. When it turns to her own family, she describes her husband, Stephen, project manager for a software company, as her rock; her 8-year-old daughter, Kameryn, as another crafter in the making; and 2-year-old son, Christian, who was adopted from central Siberia, as the family's blessing.
"It's very infectious," said Griffenkranz of his colleague's enthusiasm. "It's the extra TLC that counts."