Nurse gives gowns a new role

Wed­ding dresses turned into gar­ments for ‘baby an­gels’

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - HIGH PROFILE - SARA BAUKNECHT

PITTS­BURGH — Rose Ann Mil­bert is a reg­is­tered nurse in the neona­tal in­ten­sive care unit at Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh Med­i­cal Cen­ter. On the side, she helps peo­ple with another skill: sewing.

She’s a seam­stress tal­ented in tend­ing to bridal gowns, and when her friends and co-work­ers have ba­bies, she of­ten makes their chris­ten­ing gowns, she says.

Re­cently she has started com­bin­ing what she knows about all of these to re­pur­pose wed­ding gowns that have jour­neyed down the aisle into “an­gel gowns” — small dresses pro­vided to fam­i­lies of ba­bies who died in the hos­pi­tal. They can be used to dress the baby for burial or kept by the fam­ily as a keep­sake to honor the child’s brief life.

She em­barked on the en­deavor in May and al­ready has had more than 100 wed­ding gowns do­nated to the cause. Her sis­ter and a hand­ful of other nurses help her take the gowns apart and cut them ac­cord­ing to pat­terns. Mil­bert sews the pieces to­gether into four sizes for baby boys and girls. Each has its own per­son­al­ity. Some are cov­ered in lace; oth­ers are trimmed with but­tons and have a hint of color. All are open in the back so they can eas­ily slip on. Gowns given at her hos­pi­tal have an an­gel pin on each, are wrapped in tis­sue pa­per with a card and are pre­sented to the fam­ily in a mem­ory box. Gowns also have been dis­trib­uted to other area hos­pi­tals.

“I think it gives the par­ents a lit­tle bit of peace of mind when they look at them, and they see their baby as an an­gel,” she says.

In the past when ba­bies died in the hos­pi­tal they typ­i­cally were wrapped in a blan­ket or some other ma­te­rial. As word of Mil­bert’s work has spread, other nurses have of­fered their wed­ding gowns.

She got the idea when a friend in­tro­duced her to NICU Help­ing Hands, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion in Fort Worth. It cre­ated an­gel gowns for lo­cal fam­i­lies for about a year be­fore a TV sta­tion in Dal­las/Fort Worth did a story on them in March. Within a few min­utes of the piece’s air­ing, the or­ga­ni­za­tion re­ceived dozens of emails, says pres­i­dent and founder Lisa Grubbs. Within a few days the story had gone vi­ral, cap­tur­ing the at­ten­tion of ma­jor me­dia out­lets such as Huff­in­g­ton Post and NBC’s To­day.

The project has out­grown Grubbs’ home. Now she and a team of vol­un­teer seam­stresses work in a ware­house that was do­nated. Be­cause Grubbs’ hus­band is a spe­cial­ist for pre­ma­ture ba­bies, she no­ticed the lack of gar­ments avail­able to dress a de­ceased in­fant. Fam­i­lies of­ten ended up sort­ing through piles of do­nated clothes at the hos­pi­tal to see if any­thing fit, she says. “Science has done amaz­ing things to save pre­ma­ture ba­bies,” Grubbs says. “Un­for­tu­nately, we’re still catch­ing up with the emo­tional sup­port and ed­u­ca­tional sup­port that fam­i­lies need.”

Peo­ple across the coun­try — and the world — have been lend­ing sup­port. Some, like Mil­bert, have or­ga­nized lo­cal net­works for de­sign­ing and dis­tribut­ing an­gel gowns. NICU Help­ing Hands has an in­ter­na­tional chap­ter in Aus­tralia and this fall plans to kick off a na­tional chap­ter. Com­mu­ni­ties will be able to ap­ply to start an­gel gown groups af­fil­i­ated with the non­profit that ad­here to a set of “best prac­tices” guide­lines.

Mil­bert has re­ceived gowns from women rep­re­sent­ing all walks of life, from new­ly­weds to those who were wed decades ago.

“Peo­ple have sent let­ters and pic­tures with their wed­ding gown do­na­tions,” Grubbs says. “Many are women who 30 or 40 years ago lost ba­bies at a time when they never even got to hold the baby. A lot of heal­ing is tak­ing place. They’re mail­ing gowns in honor of ba­bies who they lost that were never hon­ored in the way that we’re do­ing with fam­i­lies now.”

Some­times women send her dresses want­ing them to be turned into an an­gel gown for a spe­cific fam­ily in need, which Grubbs strives to ac­com­mo­date.

“That be­comes very per­sonal be­cause then you have a story that goes with the gown you’re cur­rently mak­ing,” she says. “That’s what liv­ing should be all about: shar­ing our sto­ries and hon­or­ing lives that im­pacted ours.”

Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette/PAM PAN­CHAK

Rose Ann Mil­bert of Pitts­burgh leads a lo­cal ini­tia­tive to cre­ate ‘‘an­gel gowns,’’ small dresses re­pur­posed from do­nated wed­ding gowns for still­born ba­biess or those who die in the hos­pi­tal.

Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette/ PAM PAN­CHAK

A fin­ished ‘‘an­gel gown’’

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