Kay Needles, NICU nurse and sewing volunteer coordinator at St. David's Hospital, shows off one of the scrub quilts on an isolette holding a premature baby.
When possible, premature twins are kept together in the neonatal intensive care unit. These scrub quilts cover the isolettes of a sister and brother who had been in the NICU for over two months.
Kay Needles is a nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at St. David’s Medical Center in Austin, Texas. As a child growing up in Nottingham, England, Kay’s grandmother taught her to sew, knit, and crochet, and instilled in her what has become a lifelong love of needlework of all kinds.
Those skills were put to especially good use when Kay became the volunteer coordinator for needlework services provided by individual donors and members of such charitable organizations as Threads of Love and Newborns in Need, all dedicated to providing handmade articles for premature and sick infants.
When a baby is born prematurely at the hospital, it is transferred to an incubator called an “isolette” that provides controlled temperature, humidity, and oxygen for the infant. Made of a clear plastic material, the isolette is draped with a cover in order to keep the baby in a dark environment that better approximates conditions in the womb. Because having a premature baby is so difficult for the child’s parents and family, the hospital staff takes special care to lessen the trauma of the situation however possible. In an effort to reduce the sterile look and feel of the isolette, its cover is often handmade by sewing volunteers such as the ones Needles coordinates.
The uniforms that nurses wear are called scrubs, and usually the decision as to fabric color and pattern of the scrubs is left up to the individual nurse. As a result, they can be highly personal and for many in the profession, they take on special meaning.
“We NICU nurses get very attached to our scrubs,” Needle explains. “Some of us remember which pair of scrubs we were wearing when we were caring for a certain baby or even our own babies. Most of us hang on to them—scrubs are not something that we give away.”
When St. David’s decided to standardize on a navy blue scrub as the uniform for its nurses to wear, all the colorful, patterned scrubs that the nurses had been wearing were suddenly relegated to the back of closets or stored away.
Not long after the uniform change occurred, Kay came up with an idea. The NICU was in need of new isolette covers, ones that were made of durable, good quality fabrics that could stand up to repeated washing.
Dependent on donations for materials to make such items, she realized that she had a ready supply of the perfect fabrics: all those scrubs that the staff could no longer wear but didn’t want to part with. What if they were used to make little quilts for the isolettes? That way, the nurses could still enjoy their scrubs, albeit in a different form!
The isolette scrub quilts are made of six-inch squares and backed with fleece. They are bright and colorful and some even have holiday themes. The NICU nurses have all gotten involved with the project, bringing in their old scrubs and helping to cut squares during down time. They have also held bake sales and other fundraisers in order to buy fleece, thread, and other necessary supplies for the quilts.
Needles does most of the cutting and sewing at home. After the family of a beloved colleague who had died of ovarian cancer learned about the project, they donated all her old scrubs, and the isolette quilts made from them have extra meaning for the NICU staff.
When she first started the project, Needles assumed that she might make 20 or 30 quilts, but to date she has made over 100 and she says that her sewing room at home is full of donated scrubs to make more. “I think it’s going to be a long-term project,” she laughs.
“I’ve promised the other nurses that I’ll keep making quilts until I use up all their scrubs.”
The families of the preemie babies love the quilts also. “They get to know which isolette holds their baby by which quilt is on it,”she continues. The cheerful quilts help soften the hospital environment and bring some comfort to the families who are dealing with a deeply stressful situation.
“My children were all born healthy, and I never had to be on the other side of NICU as a parent,” Needles notes. “I’ve had so many blessings and I’m happy to be able to use my talent to give something back. All the NICU nurses want to do anything we can do for the parents to make their journey easier.”
That “journey” is most certainly made more manageable through the dedication, compassion, and skill of the NICU nursing staff and the brightly colored isolette quilts made from their treasured scrubs.
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