Hooked on a cause: Needleworking for NICUs

Needleworkers from all across Southeast Texas are using their handiwork to help keep preemies healthy and happy in area hospitals. It all started with a needle – or crochet hook, in this instance – and a little bit of research.

Cindy Fontaine, owner of In the Loop, a craft store in Silsbee, is spearheading the initiative to help keep premature babies calm during their stay in neonatal intensive care units.

With an octopus in mind for the logo of her new business on East Avenue H, Fontaine took to the Internet to find sea-themed patterns for her craft store, which opened in March 2017, when she came across the Danish Octo Project, a group of volunteers in Denmark that began crocheting colorful octopi dolls for premature babies in February 2013.

According to the Danish Octo Project website, the tentacles of Octos, as the Danish group calls them, resemble the umbilical cord and remind the babies of their time in the womb. Researchers from Denmark found that when premature babies were given the Octos to cuddle with in their incubators, they were less likely to pull out their IVs and monitoring devices and had better breathing, increased blood oxygen levels and more regular heartbeats.

“They did a clinical trial over there and they found that a lot of these preterm babies with respiratory distress, they tend to breathe faster than normal and their heart rates are typically faster and (the octopi) would just level those out and calm them,” said Mindy Hammermeister, a charge nurse in the Baptist Hospital NICU.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 15 million babies are born premature each year. And while parents often hear that they shouldn’t let their babies sleep with stuffed toys — it increases the risk of SIDS, says the American Academy of Pediatrics — in the case of preemies, these octopi serve a purpose.

Dr. Snehal Doshi, neonatologist and director of Baptist Hospital’s NICU, confirmed that the octopi seemed to help his preemie patients.

“They have what’s called a Palmar reflex, so if anything gets in their hand, they squeeze,” Dr. Doshi said. “So anytime they are in the womb, they’ll squeeze their umbilical cord. So just having the octopus there in the bed with them gives them something to hold onto and comforts them.” Doshi said the octopi help keep the babies from pulling out critical wires as well.

The Danish Octo Project donates Octos to families with preemies in 16 of the neonatal departments in Denmark and at Dronning Louises Hospital in Nuuk, Greenland.

Since the inception of the project, the group has received numerous inquiries and has inspired volunteers like Fontaine in launching similar projects all over the world, including in Silsbee, Texas.

“I had premature babies in my family, so I was like, ‘Yes, we’ve got to do this,’” Fontaine said. Once Fontaine got her shop going, a circle of volunteers began to form called the Loop Group. “It’s important to me to help those who can’t help themselves, and for an innocent little one who is fighting for their life. … This is proving that it’s helping and if we can help, that’s worth it all. … It’s a small investment in yarn and a little bit of time that’s making a huge difference.”

Fontaine contacted Christus St. Elizabeth in Beaumont to inquire if the hospital was interested in her octopi and got approval from them to move forward with the project, then received inquiries from Baptist Hospital through social media that there was a need in their NICU as well, Fontaine said.

“We did 25 for each hospital and delivered 50 the week of Christmas,” she said. “We started getting feedback that it was working and helping. … Our goal was to get enough people involved so that we could branch out to Mid-County as well.”

Fontaine and her Loop Group delivered 25 octopi to the Medical Center of Southeast Texas on Wednesday, Feb. 14, she said, meeting her goal of reaching all three major hospitals in the area.

But the initiative didn’t end there. The Loop Group is continuing to re-supply area hospitals with the octopi.

“Our goal is to keep these hospitals re-supplied every month and reach out to Houston from there,” Fontaine said. The group has made more than 200 octopi so far for the cause. Fontaine teaches free classes for beginners and more experienced needleworkers on how to make the octopi. She also offers a discount on yarn from her shop that is being used for the cause. In addition to crocheted versions of the dolls, In the Loop is currently making knitted versions that will also go to the hospitals.

“It’s going to open it up and allow even more people to help,” she said. “It’s going to open up the world for knitters.”

Little Hats Big Hearts

In addition to the Octo Project for preemies, Fontaine and her Loop Group also volunteer their time to create hats for newborn babies not only to keep their heads warm but to also raise awareness about heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans, and congenital heart defects, the most common type of birth defect in the country, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

According to AHA’s website, a defect results when the heart or blood vessels near the heart don’t develop normally before birth.

“Congenital heart defects are structural problems with the heart present at birth,” according to the AHA. “They result when a mishap occurs during heart development soon after conception and often before the mother is aware that she is pregnant. Defects range in severity from simple problems, such as ‘holes’ between chambers of the heart, to very severe malformations, such as complete absence of one or more chambers or valves.”

Having a congenital heart defect can increase risk of developing pulmonary hypertension, arrhythmias, infective endocarditis, anticoagulation and congestive heart failure, says the AHA.

Rasheeda Daugherty, corporate market director for the Golden Triangle American Heart Association, said the organization received more than 500 knitted red hats from local residents. She distributed them to all three local hospitals on Valentine’s Day. Daughtery partnered with Fontaine in the effort. Fontaine and her Loop Group created around 250 for the cause, she said.

“(The American Heart Association) has been doing it nationwide for about five years now,” she said. Thanks to social media, people from all over the world, even as far away as Australia, have shown interest in getting involved in making the hats, Daugherty said.

Dr. Doshi said congenital heart disease can be life threatening, but there’s times when patients do really well, get corrective surgery and grow up to be productive adults, using American snowboarder Shaun White as an example. White won the Olympic gold medal in the men’s halfpipe Feb. 14 at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. The date fittingly coincided with Congenital Heart Disease (CHD) Awareness Week as well as Valentine’s Day. White’s gold medal run made him the first snowboarder in Olympic history to win three gold medals at the Winter Olympics.

“In critical heart disease, that baby is going to die if we don’t do immediate surgery or immediate intervention,” Doshi said. “Then there’s the ones that have a little bit of a problem and can live with it that we give medication and when they get older we can do surgery. Between the two groups, the ones that are really critical, only about 3 out of 4 will make it to their first birthday.”

How to get hooked

The Loop Group meets holds classes every Friday and Saturday for people who wish to learn how to knit or crochet and help local NICU patients with octopi and red hats. The classes Fontaine are offering are free as compared to $45 classes found in Houston stores, she said.

Angela Matthew of Buna, a regular at In the Loop, has had four premature babies in her family and says this was her inspiration for joining Fontaine’s group.

Crocheting an octopus requires intermediate to advanced skill and making one usually takes between two and a half to three hours per doll, according to Fontaine. Matthew, however, mother of two toddlers, made 11 octopi in one week.

And everyone seems to be joining in the cause, whether young or old, woman or man. Tripp Dowling’s wife Xenia introduced him to crocheting octopi for preemies, and he recently finished his first doll. Xenia helps teach crocheting as well.

“I’ve never done anything like that. It took me several days, but I just did it for like an hour at a time,” Tripp said. “I thought it was a good cause. My wife already made them, so I decided to buy a kit and make one myself.”

While Tripp admits he’s a little slower with the crochet hook than his wife, he said he will continue to contribute to the cause.

For more information on how you can volunteer or learn to crochet, contact Cindy Fontaine at (409) 373-2144.

Photo by Jessica Darder