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Made with love: Blankets and hats give comfort to children in the hospital | Kitsap Week

Karen Gerstenberger and the quilt that inspired Katie
Karen Gerstenberger and the quilt that inspired Katie's Comforters Guild
— image credit: Erin Jennings

The blanket in Karen Gerstenberger’s arms is more than a pretty quilt.

For her daughter, Katie, it was an important source of comfort while in the hospital. The blanket became Katie’s bathrobe, a blinder to hide her from watching shots, a mask to block smells, and a way to pass the time by discussing the different flowers on the fabric.

And after Katie passed away, it became Karen’s motivation to start Katie’s Comforters Guild.

In fall  2006, Katie, a sixth-grader at West Sound Academy, came down with what was thought to be a virus. For three weeks, her doctor tried to figure out what was causing the low-grade fever and fatigue.

Eventually, Karen noticed a slight swelling in Katie’s sternum, about the size of a thumb-tip.

Results of an ultrasound and CAT scan showed a mass growing throughout her abdomen, and entering Katie’s heart. The Gerstenbergers were told to catch the first ferry in the morning and head to the emergency room at Children’s Hospital in Seattle.

Early the next day, Karen, Katie and Gregg (husband and father) crossed the water to Seattle while brother David stayed in Poulsbo.

Katie brought along the quilt her mom had made for her a couple of years earlier. The blanket, with its flannel purple flowers on one side and its soft cotton with state flowers on the other, was the perfect size and weight to keep Katie comfortable during the car ride.

The Gerstenbergers were in the ER for hours and a plethora of tests was run on Katie.

“All the time in the ER was very bewildering and frightening. They kept bringing in new teams of doctors and we kept answering the same questions over and over again,” Karen said.

They were told that Katie needed to be admitted to the cancer ward right away.

“We kept thinking ‘But we just came here for tests,’” Karen said. “All we had were the clothes on our back and this blanket.”

Ultimately the doctors diagnosed Katie with adrenocortical carcinoma (cancer of the adrenal gland). Katie’s treatment would require a lengthy hospital stay. The family moved into the Ronald McDonald House, near the hospital, to be with Katie. David, a freshman at North Kitsap High School at the time, transferred to The Hutch School in Seattle.

The importance of the blanket

As Katie endured treatment and life in the hospital, her blanket, the one item she chose to bring with her on that pivotal day, played an important role in her solace.

“When I washed it, I had to get it back to her the same day. It really became a comforter for her. It was significant,” Karen said.

Katie was a fighter and endured rounds of chemotherapy and an 18-hour surgery. She lived her last days to the fullest. Two weeks before she passed away, Katie was a beaming bridesmaid in her cousin’s wedding.

After Katie died, Karen slept with her daughter’s floral quilt. Threadbare and worn in some areas, Katie never wanted her mother to repair the blanket. She wanted it to stay the same.

“It was hard to function after Katie died. There were days it was hard to move off the couch,” Karen said.

For the past 10 months, Karen had been devoted to being Katie’s caregiver and advocate. With David back at North Kitsap High School and Gregg at work, Karen struggled with how to spend her days.

She turned to sewing as a soothing and quiet activity. She chose to make a quilt similar in style to the one she had made for Katie, but this one was for a little boy. Karen knew from experience that waiting is a common activity in the hospital. She chose fabric covered with cars and roads. She imagined a little boy passing  time by driving toy cars up and over and around the quilt.

“Touching the fabric comforted me because I knew what it would feel like to the child, or to the mom, whose hands [the blanket] was placed in. Knowing that while I needed comfort, other people did too,” Karen said.

The start of Katie’s Comforters Guild

Soon Karen had the idea to make a quilt for each patient at Children’s Hospital. She knew the task was too big for her alone.  She would need help.

Karen met with hospital officials and shared her idea. She wanted to form a guild, but guilds are usually reserved for raising money. Karen’s idea was unique. She knew others would want to help patients, but often help translates to money.

“Each of us can make a difference. If you have the money, you can donate it to research. If you don’t have the money, you can donate your time, fabric and skills and make a blanket,” she said.

With the hospital’s blessing, Karen formed Katie’s Comforters Guild and enlisted others to assist with the  blanket-making undertaking. At the end of its first year, the Guild had 50 members. Some are sewers. Some donate money for fabric and supplies. Some quilt, others knit or crochet, and some make fleece blankets.

Tailored for each child

Patients at Children’s Hospital range in age from infants to young adults. Because of that, the guild produces a variety of blankets targeted for different tastes.

“I want each child to feel special … like this blanket was made just for them,” Karen said. Due to patient privacy laws, Karen doesn’t interact with the children receiving the blankets. Instead, she drops off the blankets at the Volunteer Office and Child Life department at Children’s Hospital. A child life specialist helps patients and their families deal with the challenge of being hospitalized. Part of their job is to get to know the patients. What is their favorite color? Do they like sports? Or animals? The child life specialist then chooses a blanket that would best fit the child. This way, a teenage boy doesn’t receive a fleece blanket with purple unicorns. Instead, he receives one tailored to his likes.

The guild members appreciate knowing they are making a difference, said Karen. One member of the guild is an 88-year-old woman from Port Ludlow. She averages 20 to 30 quilts per month.

Thanks to the Internet, word has spread about Katie’s Comforters Guild. Karen recently received an e-mail from a stranger in Chicago whose company is looking to participate in a service project. The woman thought sewing blankets for the guild would be a good fit.

Along with creating and managing the blanket donations, Karen has kept busy spreading the word about the importance of cancer research. She has been asked a number of times to speak publicly and share her story. She also writes a monthly column on a blog for parents whose children have special needs.

“For me, the best way to manage my pain is by reaching out to others,” Karen said.

Sometimes making blanket deliveries to Children’s Hospital can bring back traumatic memories. Karen’s spirits are lifted when she hears about patients’ reactions to their blankets. And on occasion, she is stopped in the hallway and directly thanked.

“You don’t want your whole life to be about grief. You don’t want it to define who you are,” she said. “It’s a part of who I am ... but it isn’t the whole.”

Hannah’s Hopeful Hats

When Caroline Ferguson’s cousin was diagnosed with cancer, she realized the importance of stylish hats.

While the motivation is kindness, too often charity knitters make hats that lack pizzazz, she said.

Caroline is out to change that.

“After Hannah was diagnosed with cancer, I realized just because you have cancer doesn’t mean you don’t want to wear something flattering. It doesn’t mean you lose your sense of style or dignity,” she said.

Sadly, after a three-year battle with brain cancer, Hannah passed away last summer.

This fall, Caroline , a senior at Bainbridge High School, founded Hannah’s Hopeful Hats as her senior class project.

Caroline’s goal is to knit hats that are unique and fashionable and to donate them to Children’s Hospital in Seattle.

Caroline has completed 14 hats so far. Her handiwork is exquisite. The patterns, colors and yarn are thoughtfully chosen. Churchmouse Yarn and Teas on Bainbridge Island

donated 10 skeins of yarn to Caroline’s cause and she has also received yarn donations from friends.

Caroline delivered her first batch of hats in December. Because of patient confidentiality, she doesn’t know who received them, but she does know that all have been distributed.

A hat can take as little as a couple of hours or as long as five days to make. She plans on continuing with this project, long after her senior year.

“If I had cancer, I wouldn’t lose my desire to wear something that reflects who I am,” Caroline said. “I knew this was something I could do.”

For more information visit www.katiescomfortersguild.blogspot.com,www.katiegerstenbergerendowment.blogspot.com,and www.hannahshopefulhats.wordpress.com.

Wall of Courage

On March 19 at 1 p.m. at the Bargain Boutique, 253 Winslow Way W., Bainbridge Island, portraits of Katie Gerstenberger and Hannah Hunt will be added to the store’s “Wall of Courage.” The proceeds from the thrift store support Children’s Hospital in Seattle, where Katie and Hannah were treated.

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