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Holy Sews: Tiny layettes comfort grieving parents of stillborn children

26 Feb

 “I sewed and I cried and I sewed and I cried” — Regina Binz

BY RHONDA OWEN

    On the day after Thanksgiving in 2008, Regina Binz and a friend visited hospitals in Northwest Arkansas to offer them something she wished she’d had the year before, when her son, whom she named Ryan Henry, died in her womb 17 weeks into her pregnancy.

(Holy Sews photo)

    During the months since his death in 2007, Binz had been working through her grief by designing an outfit suitable for miscarried and stillborn babies, who are unimaginably tiny and fragile.
    She had refined her concept and created a tunic open on the sides, which could be placed over a baby’s head, then secured with a ribbon. Fetuses in early stages of development are simply too delicate and small for typical baby clothing. Even doll clothes don’t work because they have small arm and head openings, plus fasteners that could tear a baby’s gossamer skin.
    After much trial and error, Binz had a prototype for a workable garment. Her goal was to make and donate them to hospital delivery units so they would have something pretty, soft, durable and small in which to wrap the little ones before showing them to their parents.
    Her first stop was Mercy Medical Center in Rogers, Binz recalls. “We took our stuff in to show them. The nurse at the desk looked at us like we were crazy and she said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Then she told me they had a mother delivering a stillborn baby at that moment and they needed the tunic right then.”
    Binz had been planning to keep the prototype, but handed it over — with an unexpected feeling of gratitude — after hearing the nurse’s words. Being able to offer such a gift to another mother was a balm to her grief. It also meant she was on the right path with her plan for the garments. Until that point, she had been ambivalent — she needed to find an outlet for her grief but she also knew she needed to focus on raising her daughter, Torrie, then 7 years old.
    “When I found out that mother was having a boy, it was like a moment of affirmation. The sense of affirmation and liberation is hard to describe.”
   

Handmade layettes by Holy Sews volunteers

 Since that day, Binz and the group she founded, Holy Sews, have made and furnished 700 to 800 layettes — each one with a tiny tunic, blanket, knitted cap (petite enough to fit the narrow end of an egg) and miniature teddy bear — to 32 hospitals in the state.
    The group meets once a month at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Catholic Church in Little Rock, where Binz lives, to cut, sew and embellish layettes. Many of the women have lost babies themselves, while others just want to help. The ecumenical group of volunteers spends an afternoon cutting, sewing, assembling and packaging the layettes.
    On a Sunday in October, the parish hall at Holy Souls was filled with the jackhammer-like sound of sewing machines and cheerful chatter. Binz pointed to a blue gown for a baby born prematurely on a stand next to a smocklike tunic about one-third the size of the gown.
    “This is what my son was wrapped in,” she says. “That was humongous, but that wasn’t on my mind when they brought my son to me. I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’ll make clothes for all the babies of the world.’”
    Her son weighed 3 ounces and measured 7 inches, barely the length of her hand. Binz and her husband, Kevin, wanted to see their son so the nurses brought Ryan to them wrapped in a regular-size hospital blanket.
    “My son was handed to me with his head folded over like it might break off,” Binz says. “It was very startling. That’s what I kept in mind when I was working on the tunic and blanket. I wanted to make something that would support the head so that wouldn’t happen to another mother.”
    With that in mind, she worked on her design, discarding idea after idea until she was sure she had created the ideal garment.
    “I sewed and I cried and I sewed and I cried,” Binz says. “It’s a simple design, but it took me forever to get right.”
    Among the first mothers to receive the Holy Sews layettes was Megan Garrison, who gave birth to stillborn twins Bella (6.8 ounces) and Paschal (7.2 ounces) on April 10, 2009. The boy and girl were 21 weeks old. Babies who die after 20 weeks of pregnancy are considered stillborn, while those who die earlier are termed miscarriages or “pregnancy loss,” according to the National Stillbirth Society.
    “As soon as I got them, I was so touched,” Garrison says of the layettes. A video montage of photos shows the twins first wrapped in white washcloths, then dressed in blue and pink tunics with matching caps and blankets. One photo shows Garrison smiling and holding both babies.
    

Doll-size knitted caps are part of each layette

Being able to see her babies, hold them and examine them — “they have all your features already” — was a “nice closure,” Garrison says. And seeing them dressed like other babies instead of wrapped in a piece of cloth used for bathing is a measure of comfort during an immeasurably painful loss.
    Treasure Grier, a nurse for four years in the labor and delivery unit at the UAMS Medical Center, says having the layettes on hand is a blessing for the nurses, who must present the stillborn and miscarried babies to devastated parents.
    “We love them, we love them, we love them,” she says of Holy Sews tunics. “They’re easy to place on the babies, they’re beautiful and we feel like we’re giving parents a pretty baby. That’s important because they don’t always look as beautiful as parents would hope or expect.”
    She said parents are always appreciative. “We’ve never had anyone respond negatively” to seeing their baby in a tunic and cap. “It creates a beautiful memory and we send it home with the family,” Grier says. “For the parents, it’s a tangible thing that their baby wore, their baby held.”
    Sometimes the babies are cremated or buried in the layettes at parents’ request.
    The need for the layettes is greater than you might imagine, Grier says, explaining that a week earlier, there were six pregnancy losses within two days at the hospital. “It’s never-ending. All we can do is try to make it easier on the parents.”
    Money for Holy Sews’ supplies comes solely from donations — sometimes from people who have received layettes but also from people who just want to help. Holy Souls church also provides funding, Binz says. Each layette is blessed by a Catholic priest before being given to a hospital.
    Word has spread about the project and Binz is mentoring four women in other states who want to begin Holy Sews programs. “Every day, I send them an e-mail. I’m trying to use that as an opportunity to write a procedure manual,” she says.
    Binz says the project has healed her and is doing the same for the other mothers involved. And she’ll always remember the day the healing began.
    “I never met that mother at Mercy Hospital, but I always think about her the day after Thanksgiving. After that day, I could move again. I became excited about Christmas again. I was liberated.”

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This article originally appeared in the Nov. 30, 2011, Family section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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