Tiny gowns become ‘huge gift’ for grieving families
Parents whose newborns die in hospital intensive care units face incredible sadness. Michelle Matthews says she knows it’s a small act, but she tries to help their pain by sewing and providing free baby gowns for the memorials.
Seattle Times staff reporter
MARYSVILLE — Michelle Matthews has never met any of the hundreds of parents here and around the country for whom she has sewn and donated baby gowns.
The gowns are all for newborns who have died at hospital intensive care units.
The gowns are stored at medical facilities for such a sad occasion, and Matthews doesn’t know when or to whom they’ll be given.
That’s all right, she says. “There are times when what is a small act to one person is such a huge gift to the other.”
She sews her gowns in three sizes; the smallest so tiny it’s just a diamond-shaped wrap with a little pocket and a ribbon to close it.
That’s because sometimes the babies who die are so tiny and fragile — perhaps a pound in weight, all of 8 to 10 inches in length — that putting them in that little pocket is all you can do.
Some of the babies have died from complications during the pregnancy, some shortly after birth.
Matthews says that at least the parents won’t have to go to a clothing store for babies and see other parents shopping for their healthy newborns as they find something for the memorial service.
In her family home here, using a Singer heavy-duty sewing machine and a serger, Matthews sews her Angel Gowns all from donated wedding gowns. The adult gowns have nice fabric that “is soft and sweet and pretty, and delicate with the lace.” And, really, have mostly been used only once.
Matthews began her project at the end of 2011 using her own wedding gown.
“I didn’t see any reason to hang onto it forever in my closet,” she says.
As word spread, she began getting emails from around the country from women offering their gowns.
Matthews has some 60 wedding dresses waiting to be cut up and sewn, all carefully folded and stored in vacuum bags so they don’t take up much room. She’s thinking of putting a hold on accepting more dresses until she gets through these.
A grandmother from Canfield, Ohio, enclosed this note with her donation: “Here is my wedding gown and veil. I know you will make good use of them, in memory of my grandson ... ”
A donor named Emily writes about her now-healthy son who was born at 33 weeks and the time he spent in intensive care.
“If my dress can provide any kind of comfort to someone when they need it the most it’d mean the world to me,” she writes.
Although Matthews hasn’t met the recipients of the outfits — she began giving them away first here and now throughout the country — every day she sees worried parents whose babies are in dire straits.
Matthews works near the entrance to the neonatal intensive care unit at EvergreenHealth Medical Center in Kirkland, where she is a health-unit coordinator. She lets the parents into the locked area.
“I see them every day,” Matthews says. “It’s tiring and draining for them, also coping with the rest of life, having to go work, other children at home.”
If not for her baby gowns, the infants might have simply been placed in their hospital blankets when they were buried or cremated.
Only a very small number of newborns die.
Nationwide, according to federal health figures, in 2009 the mortality rate for children dying before 28 days of age was 4.2 per 1,000 live births, due to such causes as congenital malformations.
For babies between ages 28 days and 1 year, the death rate was 2.2 per 1,000 live births, most often due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Combined, that means more than 26,000 children under age 1 die each year. That puts the U.S. at No. 29 in infant mortality rates among developed countries, with such countries as Norway and Japan having considerably lower rates, and it results in annual stories about our relatively high ranking.
At EvergreenHealth, the gowns are stored along with bereavement boxes that the hospital buys.
Inside the boxes can be placed such items as a mold of the baby’s hand or foot, and even photos taken by a volunteer photographer.
“I think it does matter,” says Dr. Barry Lawson, director of women’s and children’s services at the hospital. “The keepsakes don’t bring them back, but at least it makes you less lonely as parents.”
Trish Anderson, a nurse and director of women’s and children’s programs at the hospital, says she’s heard from parents who take the boxes and for a long time can’t bring themselves to open them.
But when they do, she says, “They’re very appreciative.”
Matthews, 42, works three 12-hour shifts a week, and her husband, Jerry Matthews, also works long shifts with sometimes mandatory overtime as an oil-refinery operator in Anacortes.
That gives her some long stretches at home by herself. She finds relaxation in sewing the gowns, sometimes for six or seven hours at a time.
“It’s almost meditative. When I’m working on a gown, it takes my mind off my son who’s across the country in the Navy, or my mother who has cancer,” says Matthews.
She’s gotten fast enough that she can sew a baby gown in an hour.
When she started, Matthews was given some gown patterns by Vicki Gillette, a Bothell woman who was co-founder of Evan’s Embrace.
Evan was Gillette’s grandson who died three days after being born on June 18, 2010. It was a breech birth (feet first) and he wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
So Gillette puts together what she calls “comfort baskets” in his memory that she delivers to local hospitals to be given to grieving parents. The baskets include everything from some candles to a disposable camera “because not everybody has their cellphone charged.”
Gillette is a seamstress, and had constructed patterns by using dolls because of their small size. She has sewn some baby outfits but mostly concentrates on the memorial boxes.
On a wall in her sewing room, Matthews has put up a small photo of a little girl named C.J., whose aunt donated a wedding dress in the girl’s memory. It reminds Matthews why she’s sewing the gowns.
“I thought it was a sweet picture of a beautiful little girl,” she says.
And so at her home in Marysville, the wedding outfits keep arriving and Matthews stores them carefully for when they’ll be used.
“I’ve been entrusted with these dresses,” she says.
Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter @ErikLacitis