Everyday Heroes: Patty Lee's Comfort Quilts

Patty Lee stands in front of "Comfort Quilts" that she and others make for dying patients and their families. (KATU Photo)

Losing a loved one is heartbreaking. This week's Everyday Hero gives compassionate gifts to patients dying in intensive care, and the family members who are saying goodbye.

Patty Lee has worked in the ICU at Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center for decades, and as she enters the twilight of her career, she's been honored with a national Daisy Award, for the Comfort Quilt project.

"It's really been kind of a mission, I think," says Lee.

KATU News caught up with Lee this week at the monthly quilting session where she and some of her current and former co-workers spend the day sewing and assembling vibrant, one-of-a-kind quilts, which they then give to their patients, usually after those patients have proceeded into "comfort care," where active treatment is replaced by an effort to ease symptoms for someone who's dying.

"That's what warms my heart," she says, "when I feel like I can do that last gift to them."

The quilts then go home with the families, after their loved one dies.

"We're there for the patient," says Lee, "but we're also there for the families, to help them work through their own concerns and thoughts and feelings of loss."

Over the years, Lee and her fellow nurses have given away hundreds of their comfort quilts, something that encouraged the Daisy Foundation to recognize Lee, and honor her with the Daisy Award. The awards go to ordinary nurses who do extraordinary things.

"I never felt like this was extraordinary, but I think it's extraordinary how it's touched people's lives," she says. "That one wonderful moment can overshadow a lot of difficult times."

Lee talked about several specific moments the comfort quilts touched lives, like the time one of her fellow nurses brought a dying man and his wife a quilt with blocks of fabric showing hunting dogs. It was perfect.

"We have many different quilts," says Lee. "But this one nurse thought, 'Hmm,' and she grabbed this one quilt and brought it in and his wife said, 'Oh my gosh, that's what he just loved, was training hunting dogs!'"

And Lee told that man's wife after he died, "How wonderful that when you go home, you can just lay that across your lap when you're having a really hard day, it can just bring happiness to your heart."

Then there was the time that two children, 8 and 12 years old, were with their mother as she lay dying. Lee offered a quilt, and they both took one. The kids would wrap themselves in the quilts as they slept in the waiting room.

"You know, knowing that the time was drawing close, it was really heartwarming to know that kind of kept them ...," Lee paused, getting a little emotional, "so maybe in years following they'll hold that quilt, and they'll say, 'Oh, I remember when Mom was in the ICU,' and they'll feel like she's wrapping them."

It's like the quilts chose their people, and not the other way around.

"Somebody else's hand is at work, not just ours."

The Comfort Quilt project started when Meridian Park Hospital opened in the early 1970s. At first, the nurses had a room at the hospital where they could sew and keep their boxes of donated fabrics. Eventually, they were squeezed out, and all those totes of fabric ended up in Lee's garage. She'd host the monthly quilting day. Now, they get together at her friend Ida's house. Ida herself is retired from nursing at Meridian Park. It was Ida's daughter-in-law who nominated Patty as an Everyday Hero.

Nursing can be a tough profession. It's physical and emotional. And nurses give a lot of themselves. Lee says quilting fits in with her lifelong ethos of giving back.

"I think that's what warms my heart," she says, "when I feel like I can just do that last gift to them. It feeds my soul, and you can talk to any of these nurses, it feeds your soul, it makes you do it another day."

But, she laughs, "Well, there is a little bit of social time there, too!"

And the styles, the colors, the sizes, even the stitching, are all different. Lee shows us one quilt where all the stitching was done by hand.

"The care, this is all hand done," says Lee. "People have just sat there and visited with friends and just stitched around a circle. And I'm just amazed."

She says sometimes people are hard on themselves for a missed stitch or a wavy border. Lee says those little mistakes give each blanket its own personality.

"Of course, no quilt, there's nothing perfect," she says. "The only perfect thing is the Lord."

While Lee and her team have sewn hundreds of quilts, they're not doing it alone. Recently, the quilters at Hope Village Senior Living Community donated a bunch of quilts they'd done. So did the Coffee Creek Quilters, a group of women incarcerated at Coffee Creek Correctional facility in Wilsonville.

Lee says that influx of new quilts has really helped.

"It's been a hard winter so far," she says. "We have had a number of deaths, and I'm just so glad that our cupboards are full. They've been put to good use."

And about her award, Lee is humbled.

"It meant everything to me. I just thought, 'Well, as I'm embarking on the twilight of my career, that was a huge plus to me.' It just meant so much."

But it's clear, for hundreds of people at tough times in their lives, it's her compassion that has made the real impact.

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