Close-knit bond links patients, staff

January 18, 2008

Jennie Kemp makes parents cry-on purpose.

It seems whenever she passes out a blanket or hat, eyes begin to water.

"They just really love them," said Kemp, a child life specialist at Comer Children's Hospital, who distributes hats and blankets hand knitted by volunteers.

In a world where medical supplies are ordered by the hundreds, the knitted keepsakes add an individual touch, she said.

Fox News Chicago aired a story about the Forefront Stitchers. » View video

"The hospital is full of so many impersonal items," Kemp said. "Having a handmade item given to a baby adds a sense of home here in the midst of a very sterile environment."

Even more moving than the items themselves are their creators, a group of University of Chicago Medical Center employees who volunteer as the Forefront Stitchers.

"It's fun to knit together," said Jane McAtee, the group's leader and associate general counsel for the Medical Center.

McAtee, who has been knitting and crocheting since age 14, had the idea to form a hospital knitting group after a friend developed cancer.

"She got cancer and went bald," McAtee said, "so I knitted her a couple of hats."

After recruiting a few coworkers, McAtee held a meeting where she handed out patterns and the group developed its name and mission.

The Forefront Stitchers knit and crochet chemo caps and healing shawls for patients in the Cancer Resource Center, and tiny hats and blankets for babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

"Every time we pull one out and say, 'These were made by hospital employees,' they are so touched," said Mary Herbert, resource coordinator for the Cancer Resource Center.

She fondly remembers the response from a patient who had pancreatic cancer.

"We gave her a shawl and a hat, and she was just so thankful and put it on right away," Herbert said. "She wore it every day for the last two weeks of her life."

Besides conserving body heat and protecting the surface of the scalp, caps play a role in lifting self image, as a practical alternative to wigs.

"It's nice to have instead of a wig because the wigs become really scratchy and they can get hot," Herbert said. "And it's just weird taking on and off your hair."

Jennifer Grzych, a former lymphoma patient, likes her hat for its function and aesthetics.

"It's soft, it's snug, and it doesn't itch," said Grzych, 28, whose cancer has been in remission since September. "It's pretty, so I think I'll still wear it as my hair grows back."

The stitchers also make especially soft and fuzzy caps for kids and "hip" caps for teens, such as hats with knit flowers sewn to the side.

"Patients love them, especially the girls who don't want to go out without anything on their heads," said Lisa Carlisle, a child life specialist in Comer. "They can put something on when they go into the playroom."

The knitting group consists mostly of employees whose jobs are separate from direct patient care.

"It's a way to say, 'We care about our patients' even if we can't be right there," McAtee said.

Each item bears a Forefront Stitchers tag and the healing shawls have tags attached to them with messages such as "May this shawl enfold you in warmth, comfort, healing and peace."

The group doesn't receive many special requests for certain designs or colors but will accommodate them, McAtee said.

"Patients love these because they're not in institutional colors," she said, gesturing toward a pile of multicolored hats with striped and scalloped designs. "They have personality."

While five staff members meet for lunchtime knitting sessions once a month, others contribute to the cause in different ways. A local church group donated a huge box of hats, and a night nurse drops off blankets every few weeks. Other employees and their friends leave handcrafted items to be distributed.

"People just come and drop stuff off," McAtee said, noting the group even receives donations from an out-of-state knitting group. "The El Paso Auxiliary keeps sending me cases of teeny baby hats."

Donations also come in the form of leftover skeins of yarn that are too small for a big project, but just large enough for a cap. Some wool can be used, but the stitchers prefer synthetic yarn, which is soft and easier to wash.

"The key is these hats have to be soft, real soft, to go on bald heads," McAtee said. "They can't be too itchy."

Taking these kinds of considerations into account is one way employees show that they truly care for patients, Kemp said.

"What it says to these families is that we don't just care about making you physically healthy," she said. "We care about taking care of you as a whole person."

For information about volunteering or donating, send an email to jane.mcatee@uchospitals.edu.

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John Easton
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john.easton@uchospitals.edu