FREMONT, Neb. — Evelyn Carle said she was done sewing.
Needle and thread had been a part of Carle’s life for as long as she could remember. As a girl growing up in Iowa, she helped her mother make braided rugs. During World War II, she and her sister knitted caps and scarves for servicemen. And when her daughter walked the stage at graduation, she was wearing a dress Carle made.
But about seven years ago, Carle, then in her 80s, was in poor health. She had bronchitis. She fell often. When her daughter, Rhonda Sell, visited, she found her mother covered in bruises.
So Carle moved from her home in Sioux City, Iowa, to Nye Square, a senior living facility in Fremont, to be closer to Sell. She shipped all of her sewing material to a niece in Minnesota; she didn’t need it anymore, she said. She liked her new home. But, at least at first, she was lonely.
She needed a purpose. Then, all at once, she found one.
Since 2011, Carle has been stitching and stuffing pink heart-shaped pillows for breast cancer patients in Omaha and Fremont. They’re given out free of charge to patients at three health clinics around the region, each with a pink note bearing Carle’s name.
The pillows are designed to be held under the upper arm to relieve discomfort after mastectomies and other cancer-related surgeries. But perhaps more importantly, they serve as a comforting symbol to patients struggling through the pain and loneliness of a cancer diagnosis, each pillow a calming reminder that someone cares.
The pillows also have had a profound impact on the woman who makes them. They have expanded Carle’s world, drawing in friends and neighbors who help her sew and stuff them. They’ve given her peace of mind; they’ve given her a reason to smile.
“It’s just been a wonderful thing to do,” said Carle, 90. “I just enjoy getting people together and being with them. And I’m doing something good for somebody. I think that’s the biggest thing I love to do.”
Breast cancer isn’t just a distant cause for Carle and her family. They understand all too well how a diagnosis can cast a pall over the lives of patients and their loved ones. Carle’s niece in Minnesota has been a breast cancer survivor for more than 30 years.
Nine years ago, Sell received her own diagnosis. She’s cancer-free now, but she still remembers the shock, the uncertainty, the worry. She needed a strong support system to help her through it all, she said. And she found it in the doctors and nurses who treated her at Methodist Health System’s Estabrook Cancer Center, many of whom are still her friends.
Shortly after Sell completed treatment, her cousin in Minnesota showed her one of the heart-shaped support pillows that some breast cancer patients were using after surgeries.
During a mastectomy or lumpectomy, doctors often check to see if the cancer has spread to a patient’s lymph nodes, located under the arm. The surgery leaves an incision — from the chest to the armpit — which can be irritated as the arm rubs against the body. The heart pillow, held between the arm and the body, acts as padding to keep friction to a minimum.
Sell saw an opportunity. Her mother already had experience in using her skills as a seamstress for others. Before she left Sioux City, Carle made teddy bears for children who visited the emergency room at St. Luke’s Hospital.
“I said ‘Well, Mom, you can make those,’ ” Sell said. So the family retrieved the sewing materials from Minnesota, and Carle went to work.
After she finished her first batch of a dozen or so pillows, Sell took them to her former medical team at the Methodist Estabrook center, whose members were thrilled to hand them out to patients. So Carle made more. And more. And more.
“Every lady loves them,” said Kathryn Simone, program manager and nurse practitioner in the Estabrook center’s breast cancer unit. “Of course everyone likes a little freebie, but to know that somebody’s thinking of you and made this out of the kindness of their heart — no pun intended — this gift is appreciated.”
They mail back thank-you notes. For a while, Carle saved them all. But soon, there were too many to keep track of.
With each pillow, Carle encloses a note, printed on pink paper: “For mastectomy patients (or just about anyone who needs a hug),” it reads. “The Heart Pillow ... provides comfort and something to hold on to. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.”
Over the years, Carle’s workload has grown. These days, she puts her sewing machine to work, pumping out about 200 pillows every year for patients at Estabrook, Omaha’s Lakeside Hospital and Fremont Health Medical Center.
All those pillows require more than one hand. So Carle has enlisted friends and neighbors at Nye Square to help with sewing and filling the empty pillow sleeves with stuffing.
“They enjoy doing it,” Carle said. “They ask me all the time ‘When are we going to stuff pillows again?’ ”
Mary Lou Carlson, life enrichment coordinator at Nye Square, has watched Carle build a community around the pillow project. The residents gather around tables in communal rooms, stuffing, sewing and talking.
“Evelyn came here from Sioux City not knowing anybody,” Carlson said. “Now, she’s gotten to know a lot of people.”
Projects like Carle’s help to motivate residents, Carlson said. As bodies age and abilities decline, it’s natural for some people to withdraw into themselves.
“It gives people a sense of feeling worthwhile, a feeling that they can do something for other people. That’s one thing that I think is kind of hard, sometimes, when you get to this age group. Sometimes they’re focused on the things they can’t do anymore,” Carlson said. “This is something they can do.”
Carle, too, has felt the effects of age since she started making her pillows. Her eyesight is fading, and she uses a series of magnifying glasses to aid her vision. Threading a needle is time-consuming, so she’s asked friends for help hand-stitching shut the pillows’ stuffing holes.
But when she sits down at her sewing machine, she still can see the heart-shaped outline, still can stitch the pieces together, one after another. So she keeps at it, her eyes be darned.
“It shouldn’t stop production just yet,” she said.