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Day in Life

May 22, 2018 | Jill Clendening

Photo by Susan Urmy


On the third Monday of each month, a large conference room at Vanderbilt Health One Hundred Oaks whirs with activity and is all business — the business of sewing.

Shortly before 10 a.m., a small army of women quietly enters the sliding doors of the Nashville healthcare complex, toting and wheeling the tools of their trade — sewing machines, mountains of soft cotton fabric and kits packed with essentials such as spools of thread, straight pins and rotary cutters. The Vanderbilt Sewing Club members come armed with everything they need to transform carefully snipped fabric into neatly packaged gifts for cancer patients receiving treatment at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC).

The first Vanderbilt Sewing Club, formerly known as the Vanderbilt Auxiliary, originated in 1928 when a group of physicians’ wives began sewing baby clothes for needy families with newborn infants, and the group still gathers to sew items for the adult and children’s hospitals. The newest group of sewers began in 2012 specifically to sew items for patients receiving cancer treatment, said Julie Bulger, a program manager with Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) Volunteer Services. Bulger co-founded the One Hundred Oaks group with club chairman, Mary Elliott.

Each month, 10-15 women commandeer the conference room to make a long list of custom items for patients with cancer: warm lap blankets, soft knit caps, handy walker caddies, special pocketed aprons to hold drainage tubes and bulbs, heart-shaped pillows to hold ice packs near surgery sites after lumpectomies or mastectomies, and small pillows to protect infusion ports while using seat belts. In 2017, the busy volunteers created an impressive 1,049 items for patients, Bulger said. Each item is packaged carefully and accompanied by a small card that reads: “Please accept this comfort item made with care and love by the Vanderbilt Sewing Club.”

For club members, this truly is a labor of love, as well as a welcome opportunity for old and new friends to gather and share what for most is a lifelong passion for sewing. But for a few club members, the significance of the hours they spend together stitching care items is even more personal.

“I remember, it was Labor Day weekend, and I was cooking breakfast,” recalled club member Jayne Harris of Pegram, Tennessee. “I had a long gown on and something kept ‘sticking.’ I used to be a hairdresser, and in that profession, you can get what are called hair splinters anywhere on your body. That’s how I found my breast cancer.”

In 1999, Harris’ quick trip to her primary physician for what she thought was a minor skin irritation turned into lumpectomy surgery followed by many weeks of radiation treatment.

“It’s been 19 years since I was diagnosed, and I haven’t had a problem since,” Harris said. “I decided being a part of this sewing group is something I needed to be doing for others. There wasn’t something like this back when I was diagnosed. Maybe no one had a notion then that these kinds of items would be needed, but it certainly would have been so nice to have a soft blanket while I was waiting in the doctor’s office.”

Across the room, Paceda Petrone set up her prized vintage serger, painstakingly threading several large spools of thread through the machine as she prepared to stitch together brightly colored knit caps.

“My son’s 33, and this serger is about the same age as he is,” Petrone laughed.

Petrone has been with the One Hundred Oaks group since it began, and as a breast cancer survivor reaching her 10-year post-treatment anniversary this year, she feels a special connection with the recipients of her handiwork.

“I thought doing this would be a nice way to give back and do something for others who are going through this,” she said. “I was very fortunate, and my cancer was easy, if you can say that. Routine mammograms — those things save lives! I didn’t have to have a mastectomy and no chemotherapy, just radiation. Still, it’s an ordeal, and anything I can do for these patients, I’m happy to do.”

The group began after Bulger gathered some skilled volunteer seamstresses together at Gilda’s Club, a nonprofit support organization for cancer patients, to sew caps for individuals undergoing treatment. She realized that the need extended far beyond the one-day event. Bulger had met Elliott, a member of the American Sewing Guild – Nashville Chapter, as she sewed that day, and she asked if Elliott would be interested in continuing sewing for VICC patients, with the thought that an internal group at VUMC could more quickly respond to needs and special requests.

Elliott agreed, and many of her fellow sewing guild members joined her without hesitation. Participation has grown by word of mouth, and small monetary donations keep the group supplied in fabrics and needed sewing notions.

A Vanderbilt professor who came up with the idea for the apron for the drainage tubes based on her experience with breast cancer now asks friends and family to donate to the Vanderbilt Sewing Club in lieu of birthday and Christmas presents. And other former VICC patients, who first learn about the group when they receive their care gifts, later get in touch with thank you cards and often add a donation, Bulger said.

Bulger works with Look Good Feel Better, a free program for individuals undergoing cancer treatment, and she gets direct feedback from patients on what items they would like, and what works best and what doesn’t.

“It’s been really nice because I also hear directly from the Vanderbilt Breast Center,” Bulger said. “They tell me, ‘Oh, we need more port covers,’ or ‘We need more heart pillows.’ Those heart pillows go like hot cakes! Then I tell this group, and they go right into action to meet that need. This is such a wonderful group and they’ve really become great friends.”

Lynn Fleischer, who has volunteered at VUMC for 26 years initially as a candy striper, agrees that the camaraderie is a huge benefit of the group. Among the ladies, she is known as the “cutter extraordinaire” as she rapidly lays out the freshly laundered cotton and transforms the material into perfect pieces so the others can get right to sewing when they come in the door.

“These women sew like crazy,” Fleisher said. “All I ever do is cutting, but it is fun! I learned how to use a rotary tool here, and I even learned how to make my own pattern for a skirt from these girls. Every time I come in I learn something new.”

Sheri Spears, RN, a medical infusion nurse at the One Hundred Oaks Breast Center, is a huge fan of the port covers that protect patients’ infusion sites, but she also witnesses firsthand the emotion that comes with the realization that a stranger cares as she hands out lap blankets to protect patients from the chill of the clinic.

“We get a lot of new ladies that come in and start their chemotherapy with us,” Spears said. “They are obviously very nervous, and when we come in with a handmade gift from the Sewing Club, you can see the tears well up. They feel so loved and appreciated. The sewing ladies do a wonderful job at their craft, but then to have something so soft and lovely like the blankets to keep them warm really makes them feel good.”