It’s estimated that 15 million babies are born preterm every year, and that number is steadily rising. Preterm babies face a myriad of potential complications, including breathing problems, infection, jaundice, anemia, and feeding issues. And then there are the non-medical challenges of a NICU stay that some parents and healthcare professionals know all too well.
Andrea Bell, NICU Nurse Manager at Salem Hospital in Salem, Oregon says that one such challenge is finding tiny, comfortable clothing for preemies to wear. Clothing that can not only withstand industrial washing, but can also function well on a preemie that has medical equipment attached to them, like IVs or feeding tubes.
It’s an issue that concerned Jonathan Fetterley, the former Linen Services Supervisor and current Nutrition Services Retail Manager at Salem Hospital, who spoke with Bell last year about the limited quality and quantity of clothing for the hospital’s smallest, most vulnerable patients.
“I couldn’t find a commercially viable, stable source of preemie clothing in our area,” Fetterley tells Babble, adding that NICU nurses were going out to retail stores to buy clothing for their patients — trying, without success, to find enough to meet their need. “I thought we could do better than that and find a sustainable source that didn’t take up so much of nursing’s time,” Fetterley explains.
So he reached out to Oregon Corrections Enterprises (OCE), an organization that partnered with Salem Hospital in 2009 to provide laundry services. Soon, he connected with Dave Conway, OCE’s General Manager based out of the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in Wilsonville, Oregon. Together, the two initiated a plan to use their partnership to create a line of unique hospital preemie clothing.
“Jonathan said that if OCE could design the appropriate outfits, then the hospital would buy them,” Conway recalls. “OCE is all about helping people overcome challenges — how could we say no?”
Conway explains that OCE, in partnership with the Department of Corrections, works to promote public safety by providing adults in custody with work and training opportunities, to teach them new skills that will help them be productive in the community upon release. Conway oversees several OCE programs at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, including a textiles certification class, which teaches the basics of sewing, embroidery, and quilting.
It wasn’t long before top students in the class began applying for the “Preemie Clothing Project”, and nine were selected to make up its Sewing Production Team. The team began by working on various jobs to develop and enhance their sewing skills.
Then, they moved on to the design.
“We started by taking a few regular-sized baby outfits and doing some basic reverse engineering,” Conway explains. “This helped us see how they were made originally and how we could re-design the outfits to better suit the needs of the hospital. The women began by drawing patterns on manila file folders. They continued to shrink the patterns until we thought we had the right size.”
“Once they were ready to begin actual production,” he continues, “each team member was assigned a task, such as cutting fabric, surging seams, overlapping seams, making sleeves, sewing parts together, binding for snaps, putting ribbing on cuffs, attaching snaps, and quality control.”
Conway realized they’d soon need a model to test out how the clothing would fit, so one day he ran to the store and returned with an appropriately sized doll that the women named “Oceana.” He also printed out a photo of a premature baby, at the women’s request, which he hung on the wall of the work area to function as a reminder of the importance of their work.
“It became more of a mission than a job,” he says, “the crew wanted these outfits to be perfect, and they would not settle for anything less … they put all of their emotion and hearts into this project.”
As Sewing Production Team Lead, Tammy Traxtle has helped to cross-train members and works closely with each one, strategically placing them in positions on the clothing assembly line. Traxtle tells Babble that as a mother of three, this project means a great deal to her.
“Every member on the team has given birth to a child,” she says. “[We] want everyone to know that we put all our hearts, love and positive energy into every garment we make in hopes that the positive energy flows through to the babies that wear our garments.”
Traxtle also shares that the project was a welcome challenge full of learning opportunities and growth. “The best part for me was teaching each of my team members,” she says, ” … and seeing the tears of joy flow down their faces as they mastered their part of the process. [It] gave them, and myself, a huge sense of accomplishment.”
Conway says the project took two years to complete. Throughout the design process, OCE sent prototypes to the hospital to be evaluated and critiqued by the NICU staff. The team reworked the patterns over and over again until they found three perfect designs — a onesie, a gown, and a sleeper without feet.
But all that hard work certainly paid off. Bell says the NICU staff was elated to see the final result.
“[We] love the patterns, the durability of the material, but also the softness,” she says. “These are well-made clothes that will last for quite some time in our laundering system.”
OCE delivered its first batch of custom designed clothing to Salem Hospital just in time for Christmas this past December. Local media was present for the much-anticipated handoff, and they provided Conway and the team with a touching photo of premature twins at the hospital wearing the brand new cozy clothing.
Everyone involved in the project was both thrilled and moved. Fetterley notes how special it was to see an idea that was first discussed over lunch transform into a program “that not only benefits the babies on our NICU, but gives inmates a great opportunity to connect with, and positively contribute to, our community.”
And for the incarcerated women who’ve spent hours each week dedicated to the process, words can’t really do their emotions justice.
“Seeing the photo of the preemie twins wearing our garments made it all REAL and tears of joy rolled down all of our faces,” Traxtle tells Babble. ” … this was the greatest work achievement I have had in the past 21 years of my incarceration.”