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Knit Together in Compassion

Volunteers knit comfort shawls for Rush's sickest patients

Women knitting prayer shawls

By Sarah Toomey

A patient’s daughter stood at her father’s bedside, gently holding her dad’s hand, a bright, striped shawl wrapped around her shoulders. The wife of another patient received a shawl from her husband’s physician, who saw that she needed additional support and comfort as he went through hospice care. A woman with terminal cancer teared up with gratitude when her doctor presented a brightly colored shawl. She began sleeping with it in her arms.

Moments like these have played out dozens of times at Rush in recent months, as a prayer shawl project launched by a physician in the palliative care unit gains momentum. More than 120 shawls have been donated for distribution to the hospital’s sickest patients and their family members.

Most are handmade by the Medical Center’s employees, but others come from community members or even relatives of patients who have heard about the program. The mother of a patient has donated 12 shawls, and members of a knitting group in a housing program for formerly homeless women.

Prayer shawls take their name from a common, but optional, practice among knitters of saying a prayer or blessing for the shawl’s recipient before they put their needles to work. The knitter also may choose to say a final blessing upon the shawls’ completion. Of course, a knitter doesn’t have to be religious or offer a prayer to make a difference with their handmade efforts, which also are known as comfort shawls.

Comfort beyond the medical protocol

The use of prayer fabric is a tradition that spans many faiths and cultures and dates back centuries, but the Rush program only began at the start of 2015. The shawls are distributed by the palliative care team, which is made up of about 200 physicians, nurses and medical assistants, and a social worker. They care for about 1,200 patients a year who are suffering from complex and often-incurable conditions or are near the end of life. About half of these patients are good candidates for a shawl, so once the mantles arrive, they quickly find a home with a patient or family member.

Knit or crocheted in every color of the rainbow, the shawls are meant to provide additional comfort, support or security beyond the medical protocol, explains Erin Bagwell, LCSW, the clinical social worker in palliative care who is coordinating the prayer shawl program. Staff members often will have a patient pop to mind when they see the latest donation, and all the team members enjoy being able to hand them out, Bagwell says.

The shawls often become a way for families to show love for patients. “If they’re at the bedside, we ask them to help us, and we put the shawl on the patient together,” Bagwell says. “In addition to providing warmth and a sense of embrace, the shawls brighten the patient’s surroundings.”

They’re always well-received, according to Bagwell. “The patients and families are very grateful,” she says. Many of the shawls are pictured on the group's Facebook page

August was the biggest month yet for the program, with 28 shawls donated. The palliative care staff is hoping that September will yield even more donations, thanks to a charity drive organized by knitting websites AllFreeCrochet.com and AllFreeKnitting.com. The sites are showcasing Rush’s prayer shawl effort and encouraging their visitors to contribute. The palliative team is hoping to receive 100 shawls during the drive, which runs until Oct. 5. [Update: The promotion wildly exceeded the team's expectations, resulting in more than 400 shawls being donated.]

Shawls also can go to family members, who often need additional support as a loved one’s health declines, says Sean O’Mahony, MB, BCh, BAO, the section director for palliative care. “Family members often experience emotional distress and go through periods of time when they have difficulty coping,” he says.

“The shawls provide a sense of security,” O’Mahony continues. ”They are an unexpected gift, and often provide a moment or two of happiness.”

'I want it to feel like a hug'

For this reason, the knitters creating the shawls say they’re the true benefactors. “It’s very touching to hear (patients’) comments or hear about the expression on their face. It makes you feel great to know that you’ve brightened their day, even if it’s for a minute,” says Betsy Miller, an employee in Rush’s patient special services department.

Miller is part of a Thursday knitting group at Rush. The group was formed as an extension of the prayer shawl project, and employees from all corners of the Medical Center come together to share lunch, a common hobby and a purpose.

Miller already knew the healing powers of knitting: When her mother was sick, the two spent hours knitting. It gave them time to not only create blankets, but also to create warm memories for themselves.

Miller, who has been at Rush for eight years, considers herself a slow knitter; she’s completed four shawls, and is working on her fifth. “I like to make them a bit bigger,” she says, adding that she knows the size is right based on the weight she feels on her lap.

“I want it to wrap all the way around the shoulders so that it feels like a hug. Family members can’t always be there with the patients, but they can always have the comfort and security of the shawls.”

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