Kids with cancer love to hate Michael’s Meanies, an outlet for their fear and anxiety

Photo: Michael Carroll with his Meanie prototypes. Photo courtesy of Michael’s Meanies.

This story first appeared in NEXTpittsburgh, the go-to publication about the people advancing Pittsburgh and the innovative and cool things happening in the region. See more stories here and sign up to get their newsletters.

 While he was a patient at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh battling cancer, Michael Carroll was given a lot of stuffed animals to cuddle.

But after a bout with leukemia at age 6 and a brain tumor diagnosis 10 years later, he didn’t want another teddy bear to love. He was frustrated and wanted something he could crush and throw.

That’s why he created Michael’s Meanies.

The polyurethane foam characters are modeled after the three forms of childhood cancer: Lily Lymphoma, “Lousy” Louie Leukemia and Terry “The Terrible” Tumor. Kids who are fighting the disease can squeeze a Meanie while they’re getting blood drawn or toss it against the wall when life gets too intense.

Since 2013, more than 60,000 meanies have been distributed free of charge to 414 hospitals, cancer centers and family care facilities in 50 states and 21 countries.

After designing the monsters on his iPad and building clay prototypes, Michael was able to hand-deliver the factory-made, individually wrapped stress toys to fellow patients in Pittsburgh, his native West Virginia and Hawaii.

Michael died July 3, 2014, at age 17. His parents, Linda and Paul Carroll, are carrying on his legacy through Michael’s Meanies.

“Michael was always so comfortable talking to people,” Linda says. “After they removed his tumor, he heard a little girl crying and he wanted to give her something to help take her fear and frustration away.”

The family car — which Paul uses on his daily commute from Wheeling to Pittsburgh — is adorned with Meanie decals and the website address.

Before the pandemic, the nonprofit held large fundraising events to ship Meanies to hospitals around the world. Now they rely on word-of-mouth T-shirt sales and online donations through PayPal.

While Meanies are free, some people offer to pay. The suggested donation is $3 and each Meanie comes with a brochure detailing Michael’s journey.  A student at a medical school in Florida handed them out to his graduating class and an army of Meanies was deployed to Iraq to inspire and motivate U.S. troops.

The Carrolls regularly receive letters of appreciation from patients, their family members and hospital staff.

Everybody, it seems, loves to hate Meanies.