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Mad Hatters provide comfort for recovering patients

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Vincent Borden
  • 37th Training Wing Public Affairs Office
Two women are talking to one another casually. One is the inquisitor, asking questions about fit and feel and adequacy; the other sits with her legs up, an IV attached to her body, wearing a pink hat with matching rubber flip-flops hanging off the edge of her chair.

The room they're in is tiny and a bit warm from all the other people standing around, but neither seems to notice much.

For Julie Barnett, a military wife and seamstress, she's been waiting for the day she would finally get to meet a recipient of the fruit of her efforts, and now the questions roll out of her unabated and with genuine concern.

For Deborah Beidleman, there have been worse things than being asked questions while attached to an IV in a warm, slightly crowded room. Much worse.

On a hot day in June nearly three years ago, she was told by a physician she was going to die.

She received the news shortly after seeing a doctor for minor pain she was experiencing in her clavicle. What originally started as a quaint search for relief in her upper extremities ended with a despairingly low life expectancy estimate: She had 12 months to live. 

Doctors at Brooke Army Medical Center had discovered cancer plaguing her lungs. 

After hearing their estimation with understandable amazement, Mrs. Beidleman was determined not to let the malignancy plague her resolve. She wanted to live.

Living meant treatment and healing.

The treatment, which had been going on for years and still happening even to this day, has been riddled with numerous medications, hospital visits and chemotherapy.

Healing meant recovery, sickness, fatigue and the loss of every hair on her head.

Mrs. Beidleman remembers that event vividly.

"I was on the phone one night talking to my best friend, and my hair just started falling out," she said. "I had my hand in my hair, and it just started coming out in clumps. And I cried. I ran outside and I kept pulling and crying.

"A lot of people, when they lose their hair, don't know what to do," Mrs. Beidleman added.

Fortunately, the love of strangers helped her through the difficulty of that occasion, which is described by some as an identity crisis of sorts.

Mrs. Barnett was one of those strangers. Her love came in the form of the little pink hat Mrs. Beidleman is wearing today.

Stories like these are the target of the efforts of the Mad Hatters, a volunteer organization on Lackland directed by Mrs. Barnett, a member of the American Sewing Guild. The program, started by Margaret Jennings in 1999, was originally designed to make hats for recovering cancer patients dealing with hair loss from therapy.

Now in its eighth year at Lackland, it's grown to accommodate other physical ailments, such as pillow construction for recovering mastectomy patients. The pillows are designed to help alleviate any pain caused from pressure at the site of surgery during the healing process, which can last from three to seven days.

The organization has also grown to partially accommodate emotional ailments as well; garments constructed by the Hatters have, on more than one occasion, clothed the lifeless bodies of premature babies being laid to rest. The grieving parents are always thankful.

Although enormous in its goals and scope, the success of the program is reliant solely on the generosity and assistance of volunteers. Of those, Mrs. Barnett has only a few.

She has a few sewers, who bring their own needles and sewing machines to handle the construction of the pieces, and she has a couple of people who bring her hats and clothing they've constructed at home. But she could use more assistance.

She attributes the lack of volunteers to a possible misunderstanding: skilled sewers are not the only people who can help out with the program.

"Even if they only have a few minutes, volunteers can stop by and cut or press fabric, and get it ready for the sewers," Mrs. Barnett said. "Anyone can help."

Her vision is to make the process work like a sort of assembly line, with cutters and pressers taking care of the fabric and delivering it to the sewers, who would construct the final piece.

Fabric donations are also necessary, and welcome.

"We're looking for any fabric that's soft to the head to make the hats out of," Mrs. Barnett said. "We use everything else to make the pillows, or some of the heavier cloth can be used for winter items.

"The actual fabric can be dropped off at the (Wilford Hall) volunteer office, or (donators) can give me a call," Mrs. Barnett said.

Volunteers meet every second Tuesday of the month, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., in the Freedom Chapel. Mrs. Barnett provides a few refreshments, and tries to be a good host, but mostly she just cuts and sews, sometimes with a couple of Hatters, but many times alone.

She sees her work as a good thing, which helps during those moments of solitude. It is here, amid the fluorescent lighting of the room in the chapel and the long wooden tables strewn about with fabric and scissors and needles and paper templates and thread, that she and a few volunteers construct comfort for the sick and ailing.

Comfort for people like Mrs. Beidleman, whose fight has brought her beyond the time originally given to her, and whose hopes lie in a full recovery, no matter how long that may take.

Seeing her today has given Mrs. Barnett comfort. She now knows the love she sends has recipients, and their stories are filled with long suffering, hope and perseverance.

And it makes her hope that, hat by hat and stitch by stitch, the efforts of the Hatters will help aid other patients in their quest for recovery.

For more information or to volunteer for the Mad Hatters program, contact Mrs. Barnett at (210) 677-0661, or e-mail at jdbarnett@satx.rr.com.