Quilts From the Heart

The Community Chronicle, August 2019

I used to work for a major Alzheimer’s research group that was funded by the National Institutes of Health. It was the largest consortium of Alzheimer’s researchers in the world. Not long after I began working there I realized that we had a problem with keeping patients in our clinical trials. It occurred to me that perhaps the patients didn’t feel appreciated for their participation. I began working on a way to make them feel more valued, which in turn would keep them in our studies.

I’m a quilter and I know the power of a quilt, how it can make a person feel loved, cherished and yes, appreciated. Most people who receive a quilt have only to look at the gift to understand how much work into it. So, I founded a program for quilters throughout the country to make and donate quilts to our research group. They would ship their quilts to me and I, in turn, distributed the quilts to our 60 nationwide research centers as they needed them. The quilt program did a stellar job of keeping our patients in the studies. They felt appreciated and no longer dropped out of the studies like proverbial flies.

 A few quilts stood out amongst the others. A nurse called to tell me about an elderly patient who had to undergo an MRI scan. As she laid down on the cold, hard, MRI scanner bed she began to shiver. Her daughters asked the nurse if there wasn’t a blanket or sheet she could lay over her to keep her warm. Just that morning the nurse had received her first box of quilts from me. She ran to her office, opened the box, grabbed a quilt and returned to the MRI room. She laid the quilt over the patient, who stayed warm and comfortable throughout the long scan. Afterward, the nurse and the daughters returned to the scan room and helped the woman sit up. The patient looked down and fingered the quilt.

 “Who’s quilt is this?” she asked, as her daughters looked on.

 “It’s yours,” the nurse answered.

 “What do you mean? I don’t own this quilt. At least I don’t think I do.”

 “Oh, you do now,” the nurse smiled. She turned over one of the quilt corners, where a patch had been sewn by the quilter. It thanked the recipient of the quilt for volunteering for Alzheimer’s research so that one day the disease would be no more.

 The woman and her daughters stared at the patch and slowly, silently, tears began to fall.

“Who does this?” one of the daughters asked. “Gives a stranger such a beautiful gift of love, to someone that quilter will never meet and never know?”

“Someone with a good heart,” the nurse answered. She then explained the program and how quilts were being made by quilters all over the country and being donated to patients just like their mother.

 Some of the quilters who donated to the program were quite prolific. One quilter up in Tyler, Texas single-handedly made and donated 146 quilts over the course of six years. A church quilting group in Arizona made 148 and a woman in northern California made 169. These quilters never ceased to astound me with their generosity. Whether they made and donated dozens or a single quilt they all stood out as good, kind people to whom I was profoundly grateful.

There were other quilts that stood out too. Like the one made from cut-up blue jeans sewn by a man who drove an 18-wheeler for a living. He had a small sewing machine in the sleeping quarters of his truck and made quilts in his off-hours. And then there was the box of quilts I received from Australia. It was heavy and cost them a ridiculous sum of money to ship it to the United States. But they wanted to help, so pooled their collective creativity and their pocketbooks to ship a box overseas.

With every quilt, there was always a letter or a short note with the handmade quilt. For some, they lost a loved one to the disease, for others, they simply wanted to help comfort someone in need. I kept every note, every letter. It became known as the “crying file” because it was impossible to read the notes and letters without shedding a tear.

Over the course of six years, until I left the university, I collected and distributed 3,808 quilts to people suffering from Alzheimer’s. I left my old job knowing that I made a difference and that my project would continue, as it does to this day.