Following a heart-warming pattern, one stitch at a time
Deercreek Country Club trio sew little red hats for newborns as part of Baptist Health’s partnership with American Heart Association campaign.
After completing seven weeks of radiation treatments and witnessing many brave women undergoing chemotherapy, Elizabeth Curtin, a Stage 1 breast cancer survivor, swore she wouldn’t come empty-handed to the oncologist again.
“I started knitting chemo caps in every color of the rainbow just to cheer those girls up,” said the Deercreek Country Club resident who teamed with her neighbor, Patty Tomka, to sew caps and scarves, some even in cashmere, for female cancer patients at Baptist Health.
Then in 2015, Curtin and Tomka along with fellow Deercreek resident Julia Watkins, started sewing red hats for babies born in February as part of the American Heart Association’s Little Hats, Big Hearts campaign, which raises awareness of heart disease and congenital heart defects.
“We made over 100 hats last year, but because there weren’t any hospitals in Jacksonville participating in the project, all our hats were sent to hospitals in Atlanta,” added Tomka, a former medical transcriptionist who learned to crochet at an early age.
Finding a local hospital to accept their handiwork won’t be a problem this time around. In February, all babies born at Baptist Health hospitals or cared for in a Wolfson Children’s Hospital Newborn Intensive Care Unit will receive hand-made newborn hats, including more than 60 created by the Deercreek trio. Parents who receive the free hats will also be connected to free heart screenings and wellness coaches at Baptist Health’s Y Healthy Living Centers.
Little Hats, Big Hearts, now in its fourth year, is the brainchild of Anne Schullo, a community engagement coordinator in the association’s Chicago office. Schullo came up with the idea of starting a dialogue about heart disease – the No. 1 killer among Americans, and congenital heart defects, the most common type of birth defect in the country – by using a little red beanie as a conversation piece. “You are reaching not only the mom, but also the grandmother, the siblings, etc.,” she said. “I was looking for something volunteers could do in the comfort of their own home on a year-round basis.”
Schullo received 275 red hat donations the first year, 10,000 the second, and 19,000 the third. The national campaign, which began at one Chicago hospital in February 2014, has grown to more than 460 hospitals, nationwide.
Little Hats, Big Hearts honors the memory of Schullo’s childhood friend Courtney Lynn Ksepka, a former medical economics analyst who died unexpectedly of a heart arrhythmia at age 25. “We knew each other since kindergarten. We even shared the same birthday,” said the 32-year-old Schullo, who started volunteering for the heart association not long after Courtney’s untimely death in 2008.
Lori Strange-Paylor, the senior director of the Jacksonville AHA office, said the initiative spoke to her on a personal level. “Because heart disease runs in my family, the fear of getting pregnant was overwhelming,” said Strange-Paylor, who underwent a high-risk pregnancy at age 41. “The nurses and staff at Baptist were amazing through the whole process. So, when it came time to choosing a partner for Little Hats, Big Hearts, Baptist Health was a natural choice.”
Strange-Paylor individually packaged the nearly 600 red hats that came through her office. “They’re all hand-made and not stamped by a machine,” she added. “Baptist Health personalized them by inserting a Dear Mommy card into each package with tips on ways to take care of her heart.”
The Deercreek trio fancy 100 percent acrylic yarn. Watkins, whose father is a retired tailor in England, learned to knit when she was 7. “I used to knit a lot of stuff, even in college,” the former investment banker recalled.
Curtin, who grew up in Sussex, England, said she learned to knit while sitting in her grandmother’s lap. “She used to put her arms around mine and guide me,” added the retired business manager. “I knit a row and purl a row, which is called stocking stitch. Julia prefers ribbing.”
Tomka’s crocheted red hats are easily identified by their “finished edges,” some in the shape of scallops.
All three women are very active within their residential community, but they don’t consider themselves “professional do-gooders,” according to Tomka.
Added Curtin, who has been cancer free for the past seven years: “We just consider ourselves truly blessed. And we’re thrilled that our red hats are going to be used locally this year.”
To connect to practical tips and resources to keep you and your loved ones heart-healthy, visit baptistjax.com/heartwise. To share the message of heart health on social media, use #closeknitjax.