Donora church group makes dignity robes for cancer patients

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DONORA, Pa. (AP) — Women undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer at Monongahela Valley Hospital are receiving a comforting assist from parishioners at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church in Donora.

Volunteers at the church have been creating robes of dignity and donating them to the breast cancer patients.

"Our breast cancer patients certainly appreciate these personal gifts of caring," said Debbie Burkhardt, director of radiation oncology at the Charles L. and Rose Sweeney Melenyzer Regional Cancer Center.

"This is a wonderful gesture by the group at Our Lady of the Valley toward women facing the daunting and exhausting courses of radiation treatments associated with breast cancer," she said.

Dignity robes are unique in that they are used in place of regular hospital gowns that can leave patients exposed from the waist up.

"They are similar to a blouse in that they offer more coverage for the patient," said Vera Klein, one of the founders of the program at Our Lady of the Valley Church. "That is important to any woman undergoing any type of treatment in the hospital. It is especially true for breast cancer patients."

Klein and Rita Demeter, both residents of Carroll Township, initiated the dignity robes program at their church after reading about a similar effort at St. Louise de Marillac Church in Upper St. Clair Township.

"We read about the St. Louise robes in a church publication and thought that might be something we could do," Demeter recalled. "We contacted the woman in charge at St. Louise and she invited us to visit there and discuss the program. They were very helpful in explaining how they meet monthly and also sew at home to create the robes. They have about 30 women involved in the work."

The St. Louise group invited the Donora women to join their efforts in making robes for patients at UPMC Cancer Care Center at St. Clair Hospital, Jefferson Hospital, Magee-Womens Hospital, Shadyside Hospital and the Hillman Cancer Center.

"We felt that we would prefer to stay in our community and donate our robes to the breast cancer patients at Monongahela Valley Hospital," Demeter said. "There are so many women from the Mon Valley who are treated there and it seemed more appropriate for us to focus on helping them."

Klein said they took the idea to the Rev. Pierre M. Falkenhan Jr., pastor of Our Lady of the Valley, and he "was very receptive and gave us an area to use as a sewing room."

"We then sought volunteers to do the sewing and received a good response from parishioners and others in the community," Klein said.

Demeter said the group has made more than 100 dignity robes since the program began last summer. They come in sizes from small through double extra large and patients are permitted to keep them.

"We used a fall theme for the material and then holiday characters and colors in the most recent group of robes," she said. "The patients seem to love them, to know that these robes belong to them personally."

The Donora volunteers meet the third Friday of each month from 9 noon in the social hall of the church to cut and sew the colorful robes that open not only in the front but on the sides. They are currently on hiatus during the holidays and winter months but plan to resume a regular schedule in February or March.

"Some of the women have taken patterns and material home to cut and sew there," Klein said. "We have one volunteer who drives here from Greensburg to take part in the monthly sewing sessions but also does work at home."

Klein and Demeter expressed sincere gratitude to businesses and individuals throughout the Mon Valley that have helped with the project.

"Parishioners from our church as well as others in the community have made monetary contributions and others have donated coupons for sales on material and patterns at such places at Jo-Ann Fabrics," Klein said. "That helps a lot."

She also noted that Debbie Buck, owner of Audrey's Draperies in Charleroi provided a "huge assist" by donating a large supply of Velcro tape, which is used in making the robes.

Klein said the group from Our Lady of the Valley Church enjoys creating the dignity robes "as a community project" and get satisfaction from the response of the breast cancer patients.

"The women truly find comfort from the robes," she said. "And that's the kind of feedback we appreciate hearing. I received a note from a woman that lives in McKeesport but is a patient at Mon Valley Hospital and it was so poignant. I had tears in my eyes when I read it."

Demeter said the appeal of the attractive dignity robes has not been lost on patients and staff in other areas of the hospital.

"Several people have asked us to make these robes for their patients, but we're not sure that we could meet the demand," she said. "We have only a small group of dedicated volunteers and we certainly wouldn't want to disappoint anyone by not filling orders on a larger scale."

Klein agreed but did note that the group might expand its production and distribution of the dignity robes to other cancer centers in the area.

"We feel we have done a good job at Mon Valley Hospital and we'll be there as long as they need us," she said.




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