Little Hats, Big Hearts

by Elyse Wild | photography by Two Eagles Marcus

Newborns across West Michigan are donning bright red hats, stitched with love and infused with the compassion of dedicated volunteers pointing their knitting needles toward a vital cause.

When Shari Bethel gave birth to her daughter, Katie, 16 years ago, her joy was followed abruptly by shock when Katie was diagnosed with a rare congenital heart defect (CHD).

“It’s devastating and life-changing,” Shari expressed. “It’s very difficult at first.”

At just 11 days old, Katie underwent surgery for truncus arteriosus, a congenital disorder in which one large ventricle — instead of two small vessels — leads out of the heart. Truncus arterioles results in severe circulatory problems and can be fatal if left untreated.

Each year, at least 40,000 children in the United States are born with a Congenital Heart Defect.

Four years ago, the American Heart Association (AHA) launched “Little Hats, Big Hearts,” a campaign in which thousands of hand-knit red hats are delivered to newborns in participating hospitals across the state to raise awareness about babies like Katie born with heart defects. This year’s campaign took place Feb. 7-14.

“We are reaching out to all families, for those who are born with healthy hearts and those who are born with a congenital heart defect,” Cindy Bouma, communications director for the American Heart Association Midwest Affiliate, expressed. “Families who have a child with a heart defect have a long road ahead of them, and we want to connect with them.”

Each year, at least 40,000 children in the United States are born with a CHD, which vary widely with 21 types and different varieties of each, the exact causes of which are mostly unknown. CHDs are the most common cause of infant death resulting from birth defects. Today, thanks to medical research, most babies born with heart defects survive to adulthood; however, they face an increased risk of developing conditions such as pulmonary hypertension, arrhythmias and congestive heart failures.

Some CHDs are diagnosed before or immediately following birth; others can go undetected for months or even years. Since her diagnoses, Katie has undergone a total of three surgeries—two of them open heart surgery—and two bouts of endocarditis, an infection of the heart’s inner lining usually caused when bacteria in the body travels through the bloodstream and attaches to damaged areas of the heart. Like many who have a CHD, Katie’s condition is largely unnoticed by those around her.

Unless one were to see the surgical scars on her chest or notice that she has limitations in gym class, one would never know she is different than the average 16-year-old girl.

“People don’t realize what you go through emotionally,” Katie and her mom stated. “Going through surgery is difficult.”

Katie first heard about “Little Hats, Big Hearts” as the campaign was launching. One of her teachers introduced looms to her seventh-grade classroom, and Katie suggested the class utilize the looms to make hats to donate to the newborns. Today, she continues to knit and donate as many pint-sized red hats as she can. For Katie, making the hats is a way of acknowledging the connection she has to the babies coming into the world with a heart defect, just as she did 16 years ago.

“It’s cool to pay it forward to kids who have the same thing,” Katie said.

Each year, Shari returns to that seventh-grade classroom to tell her daughter’s story and encourage students to participate in the hat drive.

“We really appreciate the donors who are taking the time to knit and crochet so we can distribute the hats.” — Cindy Bouma, Communications Director for the American Heart Association Midwest Affiliate

The AHA has found the public response to the campaign to be astounding and inspiring. Last year, thousands of handmade, radiant red hats came pouring in; so many, in fact, that a number of hats donated for 2017 are being distributed in this year’s campaign.

Each hat bears special touches embellished by the one who made it: a delicate white heart against the deep crimson of the yarn, a burst of knit flowers resting on the side and tiny pink hearts perched atop a perfectly snug little cap. Bouma emphasizes how vital the hats are to escalating public awareness of CHD and reaching families who may be struggling with the news of a recent diagnosis.

“We really appreciate the donors who are taking the time to knit and crochet so we can distribute the hats,” Bouma expressed. “It’s a great way to reach parents of newborns during a key learning opportunity.”

For many new parents, the endearing hats represent hope and are a palpable sign that they need not walk the path that lies before them alone.

“[The hats mean] realizing that you have support, that you are not alone,” Shari commented. “Take it one day at a time. While it is life-altering, it is one of the greatest gifts you can grow from.”

The AHA will be accepting hats for next year’s “Little Hats, Big Hearts” campaign from late fall 2018 to Feb. 1, 2019. They kindly request that the yarn be red, cotton or acrylic, medium to heavy weight and machine washable and dryable.

For knitting patterns and a link for more information on participating, please visit the American Heart Association’s website at Heart.org.


When she is not editing for WLM, Elyse enjoys traveling to far off lands, enjoying live music, and practicing kung fu. She is also the owner of Your Story, a personal biography writing service for senior citizens.


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