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Lawrenceville's teddy-bear hospital restores family treasures

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Monday, July 25, 2011

After examining and diagnosing her patient -- he's dirty, missing a foot and has a detached head -- "Dr. Jill" wraps her furry patient in a white blanket, lays him down on her operating table, and begins the loving restoration process.

Call it plastic surgery for teddy bears, who arrive from all over the country, and even foreign countries, to the Teddy Bear Hospital of Pittsburgh in Lawrenceville. Jill deBroff is a teddy-bear treasure hunter who travels internationally to search antiques dealers and garage sales for hard-to-find bear parts that often are decades old.

Her patients often come from attics and basements. Their owners hope to reclaim a beloved part of their history.

"Everyone has their own story," says deBroff, a fortysomething Point Breeze resident who has run the Teddy Bear Hospital for three years. "I'm restoring the love. That's all there is to it."

DeBroff, a former paralegal who enjoys photography as a hobby, makes little photo albums of each patient, showing detailed before and after pictures.

Normal wear-and-tear issues -- common for deBroff's patients, which are an average of 40 years old -- are the reason many patients visit her hospital. But dogs can be the worst offenders for teddy-bear injuries, especially to the toys' faces, she says.

DeBroff enjoys hearing the stories attached to each bear, which often belonged to a family member who has died. In one instance, family members were cleaning out the attic of their grandfather, a military veteran who had died. They opened an old trunk and found a well-loved but ratty teddy bear that had been sitting there for some 80 years. The scruffy bear's head was detached from its body, an ear was ripped off, and its eyes were missing. After deBroff finished restoring the bear, she placed him in a new red, white and blue box, in grandpa's memory.

Debroff's business is quaint and rare. Robert Taylor -- president of Huggable Teddy Bears, which makes personalized teddy bears and sells other brands -- says that about a decade ago, the United States had about 30 to 40 teddy-bear hospitals. Today, only about a half-dozen remain in the country, he says. Some teddy-bear brands and manufacturers offer their own hospitals -- like at Hanna Bruce Bears and Teddy Hospital in Lititz, Lancaster County, and Vermont Teddy Bear in Shelburne, Vt.

The existence of teddy-bear hospitals speaks of the need for them, Taylor says. Teddy bears are unlike other playthings, he says. They are lovable and hold a strong sentimental value. You can't really cuddle with a toy car or action figure.

"It's almost like having a baby blanket," Taylor says. "It's kind of like keeping your memories alive.

DeBroff -- who spends an average of 2 to 6 hours on each bear at $30 an hour -- agrees.

"When was the last time you had a tea party with a LEGO set?" she says.

Some of the current and former patients on display at deBroff's hospital, which also sells bears, include a big bear named Brian deBear that she found in France, but deBroff has yet to find just the right nose for it. There's Monty deBear, a mustard-color bear from the 1920s that deBroff found in Haiti. She gave Monty new eyes. DeBroff calls the restored bears that are available for purchase her Hospital Collection, and names them all something-deBear, as a play on her name.

"I know these guys come alive at night," deBroff says, smiling.

Lisa Bozarth, 42, of Stanton Heights, was excited when she and her little sister -- Lara Holdren -- found Holdren's childhood teddy bear, Cuddles. The young Holdren took the cream-color bear everywhere. The sisters found Cuddles when they explored their mother's attic. A flattened Cuddles lay inside a box, with matted, yellowed, dusty fur. Bozarth visited the Teddy Bear Hospital with Cuddles for an examination and "surgery."

Bozarth gave the restored Cuddles to Holdren for her recent birthday, and both sisters were thrilled.

"I think it was special to me, because it was special to my sister, because she was so attached to the bear growing up," Bozarth says. "When she found him, she was just so happy and so excited that she found it.

"Our parents got divorced when we were young," Bozarth says. Cuddles was "something we could hold onto that would provide comfort."

About the hospital

The Teddy Bear Hospital of Pittsburgh, is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays at 4304 Butler St., Lawrenceville. Details: 412-687-2868 or here .

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