March 24, 1975 12:00 PM

When Jean Johnson was a 12-year-old in Albert Lea, Minn. she wanted to be a doctor. Now, 25 years later, she has become one of a new breed of pediatric specialists: a hospital recreation director.

As head of the therapeutic play program at New York City’s busy University Hospital—which treated about 2,300 young patients last year—Jean has turned its ninth-floor pediatrics unit into a kind of patients’ playground. Teenagers enjoy Ping-Pong in the hall, tots check one another’s hearts with stethoscopes, and youngsters steel themselves for surgery by playing with puppets.

The medicine is purely psychological, allowing children to work out their fears and anxieties. A 5-year-old who has been receiving shots every day for a month is encouraged to act out her anger and frustration by playing doctor and jabbing Jean with a mock needle. A paralyzed teenager, depressed about his crippled legs, is urged to experiment with a videotape machine and a Polaroid camera. Gradually he begins concentrating on the limbs he can still use—his arms.

“I can’t do anything about their physical condition,” admits Jean, a childlike woman of 37 with a hard-to-resist smile. “But I can do something about their emotional condition.” Such therapy is important at a hospital like University because most of its young patients are recovering from such major operations as open-heart and neurosurgery. Most stay about four weeks; others remain months; and some have to come back repeatedly for additional treatment.

A trained nursery-school teacher, fluent in Spanish, and a one-time model and singer, Jean had four years’ experience as a recreation therapist at the Mayo Clinic before taking over at University Hospital in 1967. Its $41,000 program—one of the earliest and best of its kind in the country—supports two playrooms (one for ages 1 through 9, the other for 10-to 20-year-olds). They are equipped with two pianos (which Jean plays), a jukebox, pool table and play kitchen.

One medical advantage of the program is that it allows Jean to observe patients when they feel relaxed and away from doctors’ scrutiny. After removing a tumor from the optic nerve of a 9-year-old girl, surgeons thought she was blind. But Jean encouraged the girl to paint and found that she could distinguish colors.

Both parents and patients agree that what makes the recreation program special is Jean and her staff. (It includes two full-time assistants and about 50 part-time volunteers and students.)

“I have never seen people who work so hard,” says 21-year-old Douglas Bryer of Manhattan, who has spent five months at the hospital for corrective foot surgery. “I was very depressed about being here for so long and then Jean began talking to me. It made all the difference. She’s really just swell.”

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