Glen Burnie Quilters Give Toddlers The Gift Of Comfort

Group Stitches Wraps For At-risk Babies

September 30, 1990|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Wrapped from head to toe in fuzzy teddy bears and red hearts, the 16-month-old toddler peeked impishly at the doctors and visitors clustered around him.

In true Linus style, he promptly darted by the sea of legs and headed down the hall, dragging his new teddy bear quilt behind him.

"Isn't he cute?" whispered Kathleen Gray, one of the four Glen Burnie women watching the toddler in the outpatient clinic at University of Maryland Medical System Hospital in Baltimore.

The moment was especially poignant for the visitors because the little boy has more to fear than a security blanket could comfort.

He's at risk of developing AIDS.

Although the toddler passed the 16-month mark with a clean bill of health, he still faces regular exams to ensure that he hasn't contracted the deadly disease. He's considered highly at risk of having been exposed to the virus because his mother is an intravenous drug user.

"I'm trying to get off, but I still use (drugs) sometimes," said his mother, a Baltimore resident who asked to remain anonymous.

The mother of five has tested negative for the AIDS virus so far. But doctors repeatedly have warned her that continuing to mainline drugs dramatically heightens her chance of exposure.

Her routine trip to the hospital for a checkup and counseling on proper child care ended on a surprise note Thursday. While she was talking to Dr. Prasanna Nair, the pediatrician who heads the clinic for highly at-risk infants and children, four Glen Burnie women arrived with their arms full of hand-sewn quilts.

The four are members of the greater Glen Burnie chapter of the Eternal Quilters. The 84-member association decided this summer to start stitching quilts for babies born to mothers infected with AIDS or addicted to crack cocaine.

Gray suggested the service project after reading about the Children's Quilt Project, a Berkeley, Calif.-based national association that makes quilts for AIDS babies.

"I thought we could do something like that," said the 41-year-old professional seamstress. "It seemed to me a lot of the groups that get together have a service project. I brought it up to the ladies, and they liked the idea, but wanted to keep it local."

By late August, the Eternal Quilters had signed a contract with University Hospital to provide six blankets a month for at least one year.

Four members went to the hospital Thursday to drop off the first set of six, a rainbow assortment of nearly every pattern and color under the sun. Some had soft, pastel stripes of lime green and peppermint pink, while others boasted old-fashioned Holly Hobbie girls and a rabbit with both paws full of heart-shaped balloons.

"I think it was a wonderful idea," said Nancy Ogletree, 46, of Glen Burnie, who stitched alternating stripes of mint green and white. "It means you're helping to make a difference, at least a little bit. Because cancer runs in my family, I feel very strongly about the chance to offer these babies something special."

The quilts will be given to at-risk children attending University Hospital's special outpatient programs. More than 250 infants and young children are enrolled in the hospital's Special Parent and Infant Care and Enrichment program designed for those at risk of AIDS. Another 50 to 60 children who have been infected with the AIDS virus receive medical treatment through the sister program, Pediatric AIDS Care and Evaluation.

Children are switched from the SPICE program to PACE once blood samples or cultures show they are carrying the AIDS virus, said Dr. Peter Vink, a pediatric immunologist.

Tests in the first 16 to 18 months often don't show whether a child is infected with AIDS because newborns have their mother's antibodies until they develop their own, he said. So many babies in the SPICE program are considered "indeterminates." They either receive a clean bill of health, or eventually show symptoms of carrying the AIDS virus.

The number of children at risk or infected with AIDS continues to grow steadily, Vink said. He is proud that none of the newborns to 8-year-olds in the PACE program have died since July 1989, but acknowledged that a number of children perished in the past.

"If you know early on, you can take preventive steps that can help," he said. "Bacterial infections like chicken pox or measles can be very debilitating for a baby who has AIDS."

Both hospital programs teach parents to take extra precautions to prevent complicated child sicknesses. They emphasize providing children with good nutrition and regular checkups to avoid lingering infections that can turn deadly.

Giving handmade quilts to babies infected with AIDS has become a popular trend in the last couple of years, Gray said. The idea originated in the early '80s when parents of AIDS victims pieced together a huge quilt with patches bearing each person's name. Quilting groups scaled the idea down and began donating specially made blankets to AIDS and crack-addicted babies.

"It's a warm way of saying you care," Gray said.

The mother of the 16-month-old toddler who took home the teddy-bear quilt Thursday said she was touched by the gesture. Gently laying the soft, crib-sized quilt across her son's lap, she smiled and waved at the Eternal Quilters.

"This is really nice," she said as she wheeled his stroller through the doors of the outpatient clinic. "You can tell he likes it."

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