Daniel Rubin: A S.J. woman's therapeutic war on hospital gowns
When Brenda Jones talks about the roller coaster of emotions set loose the moment she discovered a lump in her left breast, this is how she describes the ride:
"I'd say it's fear to panic to anxiety to stress to dread," she says, sitting on her back steps in Southampton, tossing red grapes to two enormous neighborhood turkeys, Bob and Fred.
When the anger finally moved in, and decided to stay a while, it found an easy target: those drafty, hideous hospital gowns.
Jones describes sitting in a chilly room at Virtua Memorial Hospital Burlington County in Mount Holly, awaiting her first radiation treatment. She wore a thin blue gown that tied in back, and another that tied in front. Even with her winter coat thrown over the two, she felt cold and alone.
"I was humiliated sitting there. I could feel my blood pressure going up. When I put on the hospital gown, it was telling the world, 'I'm a patient, and I'm sick.' "
She went home and called her girlfriend Judy Allison, of Medford, to complain. Jones talked about how she'd like to make her own gown - something cozy and colorful, something that would make her feel protected.
Only problem was that Jones, a 51-year-old vet tech and pet-care provider, didn't know how to sew.
"Judy basically said, 'Hello, I'm a seamstress. I could show you.' "
Say it loud
One day in January, Jones arrived at her friend's house with some flannel fabric, some thread, and a used sewing machine.
Three days later she had her prototype - a pink, belted kimono-style gown with a not-so-institutional pattern of green polka dots, stripes, and checkerboards.
Nice, she thought, but the sleeves were too short, and the gown needed to wrap more snugly around the neck. And the patterns could be a little bolder.
If traditional hospital gowns say victim, Brenda Jones' Hug Wraps, as she calls them, shout: "Look out, world, I'm coming your way!"
"Let me show you what I've done," she says, getting up and disappearing into the immaculate house she shares with five cats. She has left me with the turkeys, which suddenly seem threatening.
She returns with a wrap of fruit-colored fish and turtles on an aquamarine sea, a yellow number dotted with ruby-lipped green frogs, and a second pink kimono populated by black and white pandas chewing green eucalyptus leaves.
Finally there's a subdued gray one, with a caravan of elephants, rhinos, and giraffes marching alongside blue Jeeps. "That's kind of ugly," she says, "but I think that some people might not like the bright ones."
Not a peep
When she wore one of her Hug Wraps into treatment the first day, she was surprised that no one at the hospital objected. Instead, she says, the radiation techs oohed and aahed.
Finally, there was something to talk about other than the illness. "It was like a fashion show," she says.
A woman undergoing treatment for lung cancer, Amelia Kralle, mentioned a friend who was having a difficult time. Jones made kimonos for both women.
Each garment took about six hours to sew. But Jones found the work therapeutic. Since November, she'd been battling with doctors who recommended chemotherapy, battling the idea of being sick, battling the idea that she was out of work and wasn't sure what was next.
At first, she was so angry she found it hard to talk to anyone.
But as she kept making the gowns and giving them away, she felt that anger release.
An article about her wraps in a Burlington County newspaper yielded more contributions of fabric and thread. So she kept making them. (She's at email@example.com.)
The first e-mail she received after the publicity asked, "How can you have dignity when you have nothing to wear?"
Three months after learning to sew, Jones has given away almost 40 of her gowns. "I always say that the hems might not be straight, but they're made straight from my heart."
Her voice is light and cheerful as we sit in her backyard on a bright spring day. She goes into her garage for some birdseed and gives the turkeys something else to peck.
"It's OK to be angry," she says. "Don't tell someone to stop being so nasty. Leave them alone. Look how my anger turned into something good."
Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or firstname.lastname@example.org.