Emma Abts is a zookeeper of sorts. She spends her days with butterflies, giraffes and cranes, even dragons and dinosaurs. But the creatures are just inches tall and made of paper. Abts is a skilled origami artist, and she uses her creations to spread joy among patients.
But she never really saw it coming.
Abts joined Mayo Clinic in May as a desk operations specialist in the Department of Urology. But her origami story began unfolding in high school.
"I've always been the kid that gets in trouble, so I needed something to keep my hands busy," she says with a chuckle.
Abts and her friends picked up folding paper cranes during study hall and hid them on school grounds.
She's honed her skill over the years and found it quite handy in her first days of checking in patients for their appointments at Mayo.
"Even though we might see over 300 patients a day, I always need something to do with my hands when there is a brief lull," Abts says.
Naturally, she was drawn to a pad of sticky notes on her desk and began folding paper cranes. Since she couldn't hide them all over Mayo — as she did years earlier at her high school — she kept her growing flock of birds in a box on her desk.
That's when a patient took note.
"He said, 'Oh my gosh,' so I showed him how with a few extra folds you can get a paper dinosaur, and it escalated from there," Abts says.
Her origami skills and reputation around the floor took off when a co-worker, Jennifer Meyer, noticed the sticky notes and gave Abts a stack of origami papers.
She noticed how much joy the colorful sight brought to patients, who increasingly challenged her to fold other animals.
Abts remembers one patient who checked in for his appointment and asked if she could fold a giraffe.
"So I folded him a giraffe by the time he came out, and he was so excited that I folded him another one to go with it," she says.
While Abts may have never learned exactly how to fold an origami giraffe, she says she's often inspired by the animals she already has in her repertoire. She's found that adding an extra tear or using a specific paper color can quickly change one animal to another.
"To get the giraffe, I used one of my dinosaur shapes with yellow paper, made a higher neck and colored the spots," she says.
Abts also learned that color choices were another important factor for patients, with some asking her to use certain colors to signify cancers their family member had gone through.
Abts' creations inspire hope in other ways. One patient was moved by Abts' butterflies and shared that her mother always said that a butterfly is how she'd one day return to the family.
Unsurprisingly, Abts' spot at the check-in desk has also been a magnet for pediatric patients, who've been known to receive handfuls of paper dragons.
"If I can keep a kid from having a 15-minute tantrum, it's fantastic," she says. "Even if it gets destroyed, it's paper, and it's meant to be crumpled."
Some patients also go to great lengths to try to learn some of Abts' skills, like one patient who waited until Abts returned from her lunch break so she could teach her how to fold something.
"That's what it's all about. Smiling and connecting with somebody," Abts says.
Abts says she couldn't be happier about her tiny paper creations' impact on patients.
"If I can make them forget why they're here for just a moment, even if they just count the butterflies on the wall to keep their mind off what ails them and calm down, that's all that matters," she says.
She adds that her unplanned origami journey at Mayo also is confirmation that she arrived in just the right role.
"It's brought a lot of people a lot of joy," Abts says. "And that's what I really love about my job — just talking to people who share their stories or memories with me. It's been great."
The News Center team asked Abts to show off her origami skills, and she graciously agreed.
Watch this video of her creating a butterfly:
Or, if you prefer a more imposing animal, watch Abts fold a dragon: