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Toys

Lisbon doll hospital mends limbs, fosters tradition

At the "Hospital de Bonecas" in Lisbon, seamstresses and handymen fix broken limbs and mend torn clothes on children's beloved companions. Thanks to the economy's downswing, they've seen an upswing in "patients."

Manuela Cutileira hunkers over her latest patient, spread out on the operating table. Several tense minutes pass in surgery. Then, Cutileira smiles and puts down her tools. Her patient starts to sing.

"This is an antique [musical] doll that's been sent here to be restored. It's pretty damaged, so we're basically reconstructing the whole doll," Cutileira explains. "She's going to get new hair, we'll fix the body and tune up her music box."

Manuela Cutileira stands in front of shelves holding parts

It's a family tradition for owner Manuela Cutileira

Cutileira owns Lisbon's Hospital de Bonecas, or "Doll Hospital." Since 1830, the hospital's seamstresses and handymen have been fixing broken limbs and mending torn clothes on children's dolls. The hospital was founded by a friend of Cutileira's great, great-grandparents and has been passed down through generations of her family.

Housed in an 18th century schoolhouse off one of Lisbon's main cobblestone squares, former classrooms are now lined with drawers filled with spare body parts for dolls.

"This is the operating table and the room where we treat our doll patients. We have drawers filled with extra legs, heads and body parts which we need for transplants. Some of those come from organ donor dolls," Cutileira says with a smirk. "People donate dolls that sadly have fatal conditions. This doll here needs new legs, so I'm looking for spare ones in our storage area."

Nearby, a woman in an orderly's smock performs a hair transplant on a dainty, ginger-haired doll.

"There are dolls that need 15-centimeter wigs in brown hair, or blonde 55-centimeter ones - it depends on if you want long hair or short hair," says Elizabeth Pena, a Cutileira family friend who helps out here during the busy holiday season. "That's for the person to decide, when they come, if they want to change their doll's style."

The main operating room at the Hospital de Bonecas, the walls are lined with drawers, there is a table in the center of the room

The main "operating room" at the Hospital de Bonecas

At Christmastime business really picks up at the Hospital de Bonecas. With Portugal's poor economy, many gifts this year are recycled - something old, made new.

"This is a rocking horse that belongs to a grandfather who's going to have a new grandchild," Pena says, displaying a 1950s-style hobby horse. "He brought in the horse to be fixed up, so that the grandchild can play with it."

This "hospital" offers a frugal alternative to buying new dolls and toys. And hospital admissions are rising with the poor economy. One in six Portuguese is out of work. Taxes are rising, and so is poverty.

A doctor wearing an apron performs a hair transplant on a doll

A 'doctor' performs a hair transplant

The economic crisis has the power to make people realize what's most important in life - family, tradition and memory, says Pena.

"We have a tendency to value, in a time of crisis and unhappiness, more what we had when we had happiness," she says. "When you're running from war or oppression, basically what you can fit in your handbag is a little doll or a little teddy bear who comes with you, which has all the meaning in the world."

Hospital bills here start at 4 euros ($5.50) and range upwards into the hundreds for complex repairs on antique collectors' items. Cutileira and her team pride themselves on being able to treat any doll injury.

Two doll heads in a glass case

Pena says people cherish their old toys more in times of hardship

"We can fix anything! From the oldest porcelain dolls to the newest Barbies and Kens," Cutileira says. "That's what makes our hospital unique. We fix all types of dolls - even stuffed animals and toys with mechanisms that speak, or dolls that cry."

With that, Cutileira attends to another patient. After a little work on her wiring, the doll is crawling and crying on the hospital floor. Soon she'll be back in one lucky child's arms, just in time for Christmas.

DW.DE