FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – For one day every month, a conference room in Parkview Regional Medical Center becomes a sewing room. Volunteers line the tables with machines and fabrics, and ironing boards line the wall. They take the elegant satins and lace and beads from wedding gowns and transform them to angel gowns. Tiny outfits, for tiny babies to wear for their eternal sleep.
“We’re making something beautiful that will provide comfort. We all care and think about them and they’re not alone,” Barbara Kramer said.
Kramer’s been a Labor and Delivery nurse for 38 years.
“Unfortunately there’s the sad side of Labor and Delivery and babies who do not survive. These tiny babies don’t have clothes to wear or dresses to be buried in,” she said.
Until Little Angel Gowns. Kramer heard about the group in Indianapolis that takes wedding dresses and uses the fabric to make little gowns for infants who die. She and Melissa Moore helped bring the program to Parkview.
“I sewed the first gowns by myself in October of 2014,” Kramer said.
Now volunteers help. Many are from the American Sewing Guild Fort Wayne group and some even sew the little gowns at home and then bring them to the volunteer day. The smallest size is for a baby born at 14 weeks gestation and they go up to fit a 13 pound infant. They sew around ten to 20 gowns a month.
Moore is the Fort Wayne Chapter Coordinator.
“If I can prevent another family from having to go through that tragedy more than once and relive it trying to find a gown, to take that stress away from them, they won’t even know the stress that they avoided,” Moore said.
Moore’s daughter Ashlyn died at four days old in 2013.
“I really wish they would have been available for our family because they’re just perfect. They’re what I had in mind. My little angel needed a gown, right?,” she said.
Moore remembers going to the mall to search for something small enough to fit her daughter – and be appropriate as a burial dress.
“There were just no options and it was heartbreaking because you had to relive the whole loss over and over as you had to explain why you’re looking for a gown,” Moore said.
Cori McKenzie is Parkview Health’s Maternal Child Health Bereavement Coordinator. In 2011, her daughter was stillborn ten days before her due date.
“The Angel Gowns program wasn’t here yet. I remember the struggle of having to go to the mall and find a gown that was appropriate for her burial. We were not in a place to try to shop and figure out how to pick one gown that she would wear for the rest of eternity,” McKenzie said. “I’m thankful other families don’t have to go through something like that when we’re able to offer Angel Gowns.”
All of the hospitals in Parkview Health’s system have Angel Gowns available to parents.
“We try to let the families pick out what they like best and some of the seamstresses have fancy machines that can do embroidery. We had one family where we knew the situation was coming and we were able to do embroidery that was reflective of the nursery that baby was going to have,” McKenzie said.
Each Angel Gown also has a matching bonnet and heart made out of the same fabric for the parents to keep.
“It’s a mirror image of what baby is wearing for their eternal sleep. It’s a physical reminder, a tangible keepsake of what their baby has,” she said. “Memories fade and they get fuzzy with time, so having something that mirrors what the baby is wearing can be really meaningful.”
Parkview also recently starting supplying hearts without a matching gown to OBGYN offices to give to mothers who have a miscarriage.
Starrae’ Musser still keeps her hearts close. A soft cream color with a classy black ribbon down the middle and white bowtie and button accents, they’re mirrors of the little tuxedo gowns in which her baby boys are buried.
“They’re their Heaven outfits. They went to Heaven in Angel Gowns,” she said.
In April 2020, Starrae’ and her husband Daniel were shocked to learn they were pregnant with twins. But, Starrae’ has a condition that causes ligaments to weaken. By 22 weeks, she was starting to dilate and doctors weren’t able to stop the progression.
“They couldn’t find the heartbeat for Baby A,” Starrae’ said.
On August 14, 2020, Starrae’ gave birth to Emmett Joe and Beckett Rae. They were just shy of 23 weeks gestation.
“We had Baby B about thirty minutes after Baby A. He was born alive. Baby A was on my chest the whole time and when he put Baby B on me, that’s when he instantly passed. Those boys were inseparable,” Starrae’ said.
As her world shattered, Starrae’ now had to plan a funeral.
“I knew I wanted to bury them and celebrate them and honor them and that was one thing that I’m like, these babies are so small. How am I going to do it? I don’t want to bury them with no clothes or bury them with just a blanket. I want them to still be human beings,” she said.
Parkview offered her the matching angel gowns for her baby boys.
“Especially for our tiny babies, being able to dress a baby in something that’s beautiful and handmade can be really impactful,” McKenzie said. “It’s something that’s handmade with a lot of work by somebody who cares and acknowledges the depth of the situation,”
Now to honor their twins, Starrae’ and Daniel hold a fundraiser for Kate’s Kart on their birthday. They also had a miscarriage in July 2021. Starrae’s since had a procedure to help counter her ligament condition and they’re hopeful to build a family.
“We just have to have faith that it’s going to happen,” Starrae’ said.
She’s also fulfilling a promise she made to her boys: to let the world know about them. She takes comfort knowing her boys are together and are loved.
“Knowing that it’s somebody’s wedding dress and that it’s somebody’s love wrapped around them every day,” she said.
McKenzie said one in 170 pregnancies ends in stillbirth in the United States. That’s about 400 stillbirths a week.
“It’s something that’s not talked about, but families are not alone. There are a lot of support groups in our community,” she said.
Anyone who would like more information about support for infant loss can contact McKenzie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Angel Gown program does not need any more wedding dressing right now, but they always can use more volunteers.
The group meets the second Friday of every month starting at 9 a.m. If someone would like to sew, they need to bring their own machine and thread. If someone doesn’t sew, they can still cut patterns, organize the inventory or make bracelets. Extra beads from wedding dresses are used to make bracelets for the moms as well. Gift cards to craft stores are also helpful.
“The ladies who do the sewing bring their own ribbons and thread for the machines, so any kind of donation from a craft store would be greatly appreciated,” Moore said.
Contact Barbara Kramer through the Sewing Guild for more information about volunteering with Little Angel Gowns.