By Sara Bauknecht
Rose Ann Milbert is a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at women’s hospital at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
On the side, she helps people with another skill: sewing.
She’s a seamstress talented in tending to bridal gowns, and when her friends and co-workers have babies, she often makes their christening gowns, she says.
Recently she has started combining what she knows about all of these to repurpose wedding gowns that already have journeyed down the aisle into angel gowns, small dresses provided to families of babies who died in the hospital.
They can be used to dress the baby for burial or kept by the family as a keepsake to honor the child’s brief life.
She embarked on the endeavor in May and already has had more than 100 wedding gowns donated to the cause.
Her sister and a handful of other nurses help her take the gowns apart and cut them according to patterns, and, Milbert sews the pieces together at her home in into four sizes for baby boys and girls.
Each has its own personality; some are covered in lace while others are trimmed with buttons and a hint of color.
All are open in the back so they can easily slip on. Gowns given at her hospital have an angel pin on each and are wrapped in tissue paper with a card and presented to the family in a memory box.
So far gowns also have been distributed to other area hospitals.
“I think it gives the parents a little bit of peace of mind when they look at them, and they see their baby as an angel,” she says.
In the past when babies died in the hospital they typically were wrapped in a blanket or some other material. As word of Milbert’s work has spread, other nurses have offered their wedding gowns.
She got the idea when a friend introduced her to NICU Helping Hands, a nonprofit organization in Fort Worth, Tex.. It created angel gowns for local families for about a year before a local TV station in Dallas/Fort Worth did a story on them in March.
Within a few minutes of the piece’s airing, the organization received dozens of emails, says president and founder Lisa Grubbs.
Within a few days the story had gone viral, capturing the attention of major media outlets such as Huffington Post and NBC’s “Today.”
The project has outgrown Grubbs’ home; now she and a team of volunteer seamstresses work in a warehouse that was donated to them.
Because Grubbs’ husband is a specialist for premature babies, she noticed the lack of garments available to dress a deceased infant.
Families often ended up sorting through piles of donated clothes at the hospital to see if anything fit, she says. “Science has done amazing things to save premature babies,” Grubbs says. “Unfortunately, we’re still catching up with the emotional support and educational support that families need.”
People across the country, and the world, have been lending support.
Some, like Milbert, have organized their own local networks for designing and distributing angel gowns.
NICU Helping Hands has an international chapter in Australia and this fall plans to launch a national chapter program.
Communities will be able to apply to start their own angel gown groups affiliated with the nonprofit that adhere to a set of “best practices” guidelines.
Milbert has received gowns from women representing all walks of life, from newlyweds to those who were wed decades ago.
“People have sent letters and pictures with their wedding gown donations,” Grubbs says.
“Many are women who 30 or 40 years ago lost babies at a time when they never even got to hold the baby. A lot of healing is taking place. They’re mailing gowns in honor of babies who they lost that were never honored in the way that we’re doing with families now.”
Sometimes women send her dresses wanting them to be turned into an angel gown for a specific family in need, which Grubbs strives to accommodate.
“That becomes very personal because then you have a story that goes with the gown you’re currently making,” she says. “That’s what living should be all about: sharing our stories and honoring lives that impacted ours.”