Dignity robes comfort cancer patients

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

Lying on your back staring at the ceiling while exposing a part of your body to the enormous machine above can be quite discomforting.

Having something that provides comfort during that medical treatment is invaluable.

A dignity robe — in place of an unflattering hospital gown — does just that.

“It helps calm patients, and when a patient's psyche is calm, that helps them not be as stressed,” says Dr. Susan Rakfal, a fellow of the American College of Radiation Oncology and medical director of UPMC CancerCenter McKeesport Hospital as well as chairwoman of the department of radiation oncology there. “These robes can't break a person's tumor, but they can help make their lives a little less stressful during such a rough time.”

The robes act as kind of a hug for women battling breast cancer, say those who have worked with distributing them to patients. Dignity robes are not a new thing, but having them readily available to patients at UPMC McKeesport was something Elaine Dodd wanted to make happen. The operators manager of radiation and oncology for both UPMC McKeesport and East approached her alma mater, McKeesport High School, where students could help. Now, women being treated at UPMC McKeesport have access to these gowns on a consistent basis.

“I think it's a wonderful learning experience for the students to learn about health care while making these robes, and it's a win-win for everyone,” Dodd says.

The robes are being provided to the radiation oncology department through the efforts of Dodd, who teamed with the Jodie Matta-Dillinger Cancer Resource Center.

Matta-Dillinger died from brain cancer in 2001 at the age of 42. Her intent was to help change the lives of others going through cancer.

Her family is continuing that vision.

Her brother, George Matta of White Oak, says he realized when his sister was ill the amount of support she had, but he also realized not everyone going through cancer has such a support network.

“We want to give patients dignity and make them feel more comfortable,” Matta says. “Everyone talks about how cancer affects them, but until each family goes through it, they don't really understand. When I looked at UPMC McKeesport and some of the lack of services there, it was critical to help. There are a lot of underinsured or those with no insurance in the Mon Valley, and we want to be there to help them.”

Several robes will be displayed at the Harvest of Hope Gala on Nov. 3 at Churchill Country Club, a fundraiser for the resource center.

“We hope to make each step of this journey a little easier,” Matta says.

The resource center helps acquire materials that are donated or purchased at a reduced cost from The Fabric Place in Mt. Lebanon. The robes have pockets in front and Velcro on both sides for easy access to the part of the chest that needs treatment. They are fashioned from 100-percent cotton and come in many colors and pretty prints and patterns.

“The female patients love them, and I would love to reach out to other schools, too, because it is such a wonderful program for the community,” Dodd says.

Women battling breast cancer are introduced to the concept when they meet to discuss treatment.

“It is interesting to watch them because they choose one that fits their personality,” Rakfal says. “And when you see them in it, it definitely suits their personality. Women still care about fashion and having something fashionable even during this trying time in their lives. Providing the robes to patients is part of the connection we feel with our patients who share many parts of their lives with us. The robes help make the treatment process go a little smoother.”

Connie Schleifer, a registered nurse in the radiation oncology department, says the robes brighten the mood of a patient.

“It gets their mind off their treatment if just for a little while,” she says. “They are a wonderful thing.”

Kari Bailey, chief radiation therapist, agrees that the robes have created a soothing touch. She says some women will bring the robe and change into it, while others will wear it to the hospital.

“It becomes a part of the healing process,” Bailey says. “These robes have a positive effect on the patients. Anything we can do here to make them more comfortable, we will do.”

A group of volunteers created some robes at Cut & Sew Studio in East Liberty. Diane Roberts of Highland Park was one of them. She helped with the prep work and the sewing. Each robe takes at least 4 hours to complete. They make various sizes.

“I was touched by the fact that McKeesport Hospital seems to have less access to supplies perhaps than some of the other locations,” Roberts says. “I had a work colleague who lost her battle with cancer, and I also love to sew, so when I heard about it, I was happy to help.”

When treatment is complete, some women keep the robes as they are. Others burn them or some bury them. And still others create something like a pillow or teddy bear from the material.

Catherine Batcho, owner of Cut & Sew Studio, plans to make this a continuing project to host a free class to teach and make gowns. Dates are planned for Oct. 27 and Dec. 9. There are kits available to take home.

“I love the idea of giving my students an opportunity to give back, and they are learning more than how to sew a robe,” Batcho says. “There is a need for this, and it is so appreciated by the patients. Cancer touches so many lives, and it makes you think about a lot of things in life. You need something cheerful at a time like this. When we were making these, it was a fun afternoon of people getting together and interacting and focusing on this wonderful cause. We had people of all ages working together to help create these wonderful robes.”

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at jharrop@tribweb.com or 412-320-7889.

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