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Seeking joy, grieving Baltimore County parents establish a nonprofit to deliver ‘farting animals’ to hospitals

Colleen Mercier normally doesn’t like clutter in her house, but seeing stacked boxes of remote-controlled, flatulence-sounding machines in her living room has brought her some much-needed joy.

Colleen and her husband, Paul Mercier, have been working on how best to honor the memory of their son, Andrew Mercier, who died at age 10 in December after a monthslong battle with leukemia. The stack of 18 cardboard boxes filled with the giggle-producing devices is a part of that work.

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The Merciers are working to formally incorporate a nonprofit, called Andrew’s Laughing Gas, that will donate stuffed animals that are rigged to make farting noises to children in hospitals. When Andrew was at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, his parents said, he was given a stuffed unicorn which Andrew named Dookie that would make a loud flatulent sound whenever a button on a remote was pressed.

“This thing brought him tons of laughter,” Paul Mercier said. “We just spoke with [Andrew’s former doctor] and he said that he’d never laughed so hard in a patient’s room.”

Andrew Mercier in the hospital with Dookie, the farting unicorn. - Original Credit: Courtesy Photo/Mercier family
Andrew Mercier in the hospital with Dookie, the farting unicorn. - Original Credit: Courtesy Photo/Mercier family (Courtesy Photo/Mercier family / HANDOUT)

Dookie began as a joke or a prank on the pediatric oncology floor, Paul Mercier said. Someone at the hospital constructed the sound-producing mythical beast, but the family has been unable to determine who, exactly, stitched it together.

Paul Mercier said Dookie made Andrew laugh all the time. Andrew would hide the remote control under his hospital blanket and hit the button when others weren’t expecting it, and then laugh. Sometimes, the unicorn would be on the nurses station, right across from Andrew’s hospital room, and he’d trigger the button when somebody walked by.

“He would hit it nonstop,” Paul Mercier said.

Andrew was diagnosed with leukemia on Easter Sunday last year. His positive attitude while he battled his cancer inspired the Knollwood community in Towson to hang carp streamers around the community as a show of support. The carp streamers are traditional in Japan, where they are used to recognize Children’s Day.

After the death of Andrew, who was considered something of a class clown at Stoneleigh Elementary School, where he was a fifth-grader, Paul Mercier and his wife “immediately knew” they wanted to do something “to bring laughter, and also to keep us occupied, to give us purpose.”

Colleen Mercier said creating the "farting animals” was an idea the family had discussed with Andrew.

“When things didn’t turn out as expected, it became, ‘OK, this is going to be Andrew’s legacy,'” Colleen Mercier said.

The devices were donated by T.J. Wiseman Ltd., a Florida-based toy-and-gadget company, after Paul Mercier asked about purchasing them at a bulk rate. Instead, the company donated 216 devices.

John Blackman, one of the founders of the company, said in an email it was his pleasure to donate to the Merciers.

“We are always especially delighted to be able to bring some laughter to those children who may not be experiencing their fair share of happiness and laughter due to an illness or a tragic event,” he wrote.

The family, which already has raised more than $5,700 on a GoFundMe drive, is now working to procure hundreds of stuffed animals for volunteers to modify them to, well, fart. Colleen Mercier said she’s been “blown away” by the response to the fundraising and call for volunteers.

The Merciers said they purchased an assortment of 250 animals, including penguins, unicorns, dragons, lions and bunnies. They also purchased about $300 worth of batteries to go in the fart machines.

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Sara Barber, a neighbor, helped the Merciers assemble the first prototype stuffed animal over the weekend in early February. They rigged a small, stuffed dog, slightly smaller than Dookie the stuffed unicorn, to emit the sound of flatulence at the press of a button. The dog is tentatively named “Uno,” because he’s the first one assembled for donation.

First of what we hope to be hundreds of tooting animals. Thank you Sara Barber for helping us create our first animal.

Posted by Andrew's Laughing Gas on Saturday, February 1, 2020

Barber said they called her 13-year-old daughter downstairs, who did not know about the work that was going on, and triggered the machine. Her daughter “started cracking up,” Barber said.

“This is a perfect example of a small gesture that can provide somebody some laughter,” Barber said.

To get the stuffed animals rigged, Barber said, they’re opening the backs and stuffing sound devices inside. Rather than sewing up the animals, the group is figuring out the best way to make it so the animal’s back can be opened to change the batteries.

“I think it’s unbelievable that [Andrew’s] parents are immediately thinking of others," Barber said. "I think that’s a real tribute.”

The Merciers said they do not intend to stop after donating the stuffed animals to local hospitals. They want to keep Andrew’s Laughing Gas going. Maybe it’ll be through purchasing Mad Libs books for kids, or sponsoring Healthy Humor Red Nose Docs, a group of performing clowns that visits Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

The Merciers want to begin by working with Hopkins, in pediatric oncology. The hospital said its Child Life Program has not yet heard from the Merciers about Andrew’s Laughing Gas, but that it’s not uncommon for families of past patients to contact the facility.

“Occasionally, we are approached by families who want to work with us on a donation or other project to memorialize the loved ones they’ve lost. We are so grateful to receive such donations and help continue the legacy of their child,” Lexie DeLone, a child life specialist for Johns Hopkins’ Pediatric Outpatient Oncology Clinic, said in a statement.

The family wants to collaborate with other hospitals in the future, Paul Mercier said, bringing laughter and flatulent animals to families and children around the region. Paul Mercier said he envisioned a decentralized network in the future, where a group of volunteers in different areas around the country contact Andrew’s Laughing Gas and ask for materials, and then the volunteers assemble them in their local area to donate. But that’s a off in the distance, he said.

“It’s really been, I think, therapeutic for us to keep his memory alive,” Colleen Mercier said. “It gives us something to do, it keeps us busy. And we know it’s all for a good purpose.”

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