Sami Newman was 8 years old when she saw her first MRI machine. She remembers thinking that it looked cool — until she had to have an MRI exam.

“It was really loud and claustrophobic,” said the now-17-year-old, whose endocrinologist ordered the test for her at a Chicago hospital. The doctor was concerned that Sami, who had been diagnosed with precocious puberty, had a benign brain tumor that was sending false messages to her adrenal glands, thereby stunting her growth.
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Sami assumed her first MRI would be her last. But the doctors didn’t find anything, and she had to have another one three months later. Even listening to the “High School Musical” soundtrack on her headphones couldn’t seem to calm her anxiety.

“I was crying and shaking,” she recalled.

Again, the doctors found nothing. Three months later, she had to go back for a third bout with the MRI machine.

“I refused to go in,” she said. “I was crying and kicking for over an hour. But then someone from social services brought me a teddy bear that I could take into the MRI with me. Straight away, it calmed me. I named him Mr. I.”

Today, Mr. I — get it? — is having the same reassuring effect on hundreds of children experiencing serious health issues or undergoing frightening medical procedures. That’s because Sami, a junior at north suburban Deerfield High School, and her family have launched Mr. I Children’s Charity, a non-profit organization that donates branded Mr. I teddy bears to partnering hospitals (www.mrichildrenscharity.com).

Sami’s numerous trips to the hospital sparked the idea.

“I saw kids with far worse problems,” she said. “I told my mother that I wished they could have a Mr. I of their own.”

Her first attempt to make that happen was her mitzvah project for her bat mitzvah. She collected more than 100 teddy bears from friends and family and donated them to what is now the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, where she had originally been treated.

Sami Newman center delivers Mr. I bears to Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago, along with hospital mascot Remoc and child life assistant Erica Luciano. (Jenny Newman)

Last summer, she began to pursue the initiative in earnest. A family friend who owns Babydreams in Highland Park put her in touch with Gund, a century-old plush toy company. The company offered to provide the bears to the charity at a discount.

“We were beyond impressed with the work Sami is doing,” said Kathryn Gustafson, a Gund account executive. “Comforting children in need is a cause near and dear to our hearts.”

Sami solicited another local retailer, Jelli Goods in Deerfield, to create Mr. I. shirts emblazoned with a logo designed by her aunt. Sami has given an additional hundred or so bears to four Chicago-area hospitals to distribute to children undergoing MRI exams or procedures for which they are not sedated.

“We were so impressed with Sami,” said Kia Beickert, coordinator of child life services at NorthShore Evanston Hospital, in an email. “The children have enjoyed having a fuzzy companion at their bedside during invasive procedures, specifically in radiology. They have helped us normalize our pediatric patients’ environment by giving them something familiar and safe to hold during their hospitalization.”

The doctors never did find that benign brain tumor, but they did give Sami a series of monthly shots for three years to help her grow at a more age-appropriate pace.

Today, she stands nearly 5 feet tall — tall enough to get behind the wheel of a car, the teen likes to point out. Sami said that she plans to continue paying it forward.

“This is a chance for me to give back,” she said. “I was much more fortunate than so many of these kids who end up in hospitals for months on end. When I hear how the bears have put a smile on their faces, my heart melts.”

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