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Stony Brook Stitchers help stitch up patient spirits

BY ERIKA PETERS / SEPTEMBER 17, 2018

Caps knitted by the Stony Brook Stitchers. The volunteer group donates its sewed items to patients at the Heart Institute at Stony Brook University Hospital.  PHOTO COURTESY OF STONY BROOK STITCHERS

Inside the Heart Institute at Stony Brook University Hospital, Melissa Shampine, teaching hospital staff assistant and cardiovascular services clinical support, stores containers upon containers of crocheted blankets and knitted caps in every corner of her office.

They’ve been handmade by the Stony Brook Stitchers, a volunteer group that donates items its members sew, knit and crochet to patients with physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

Shampine, who handles the group’s operations on East Campus, Assistant Director for Athletics and Office Operations Jan Tassie, who oversees West Campus operations, Transportation Operations Coordinator Margaret Cush Grasso and School of Nursing staff member Maryann Russo lead the group.

Shampine started the group 10 years ago with former hospital employee Shakeera Thomas and has watched the Stitchers flourish over the years.

“We started by making baby hats and blankets,” Shampine said. “As we grew, we put notices in the weekly Campus Announcements and found there was a need throughout the hospital for a broader range of patients.”

About 50 of Stony Brook’s faculty, staff and students participate at the group’s core, Tassie said, and they have about 40 external volunteers, including community members from churches, community centers, quilting groups, quilting guilds and individuals that donate their work. Last year, the group distributed between 2,000 and 2,500 items, including hats, lap blankets, christening outfits, prayer shawls, memory pouches and baby caps. They hope to surpass that number this year.

“We started the group because it was a common interest — people that like to knit, crochet and sew,” Shampine said. “That brought people together, and there’s only so much you can make for your friends and family. So we thought, who is there at the hospital we can make things for?”

Now, the Stitchers’ items reach hospital patients in departments ranging from newborn babies in labor and delivery, to pediatrics, transplant, the Cancer Center, adult oncology and everything in between. They even donate to the Long Island State Veterans Home.

“A lot of patients come in, and it’s a big hospital, so they don’t expect to get something so personal,” Shampine said. “And when they do, they’re really touched by it.”

Joan Alpers, director of Child Life Services at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, a program that aims to help kids adjust, adapt and feel comfortable while struggling with illness and hospitalization, said she has seen the impact the Stitchers’ items make firsthand.

“Part of Child Life is making sure that the environment is comfortable, and that it reminds kids a little bit of home instead of just the sterile hospital environment,” Alpers said. “It gives them the opportunity to normalize their experience, giving them familiar things to hold and to do and cuddle with. Having either blankets that are donated, or stuffed animals that are stitched, or in some cases even special gift baskets for a prom we have once a year for older kids, contribute to good feelings of kids who otherwise are waiting for their medication or waiting for their tests.”

The Stitchers are also working on an initiative with Child Life Services to create colorful surgical caps for kids undergoing surgery, giving them a more cheerful option than the everyday sterile surgical caps provided.

“They really add color, and they add comfort and care to the work that the Child Life program does, and we’re really grateful to have them as partners in helping hospitalized kids,” Alpers said. “It really brings a tremendous amount of joy and comfort.”

The Stitchers’ blankets and shawls also help improve the hospital experience for elderly patients. Carolyn O’Neill, who runs the Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders (NICHE) program and is part of the Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP), said she sees the effects in her everyday work.

“Elderly patients, a lot them may have dementia, some may experience delirium, and some may just not have family members that come in to visit them,” O’Neill said. “The blankets have such a personal touch and attachment to them. When you come into the hospital, you may not have things from your house. You get put into a gown, and only have whatever the hospital gives you — the hospital blanket and a couple of sheets. When you tell them that someone handmade this for you, it becomes something personal that’s their own.”

O’Neill said that when elderly patients don’t have family members to visit them, or are coming from a home without any personal items, it makes the items much more meaningful.

“Some take it a lot more to heart if they don’t have things with them or if people don’t visit them,” she said. “The Stitchers deserve so much credit. They are wonderful. I love it because I’ve seen the difference between the patients we give it to.”

This year, the Stony Brook Stitchers received the Michael A. Maffetone Community Service Award, granted to Stony Brook faculty and staff for their outstanding community service, which the group will use to provide yarn for those who want to participate.

“I’m so proud of it,” Shampine said of the group. “It’s grown so much.”

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