ANDERSON — Liz Frank still has the fuzzy little pink stuffed bear she made for her great-niece. She carried it in her purse for a long time. It hasn’t been washed since infant Charlotte Gracelyn Halter wrapped her tiny hand on it in 2007.
Little Charlie, born two months premature with unexpected heart problems, was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. With her mom, Samantha, recuperating from the caesarian section in South Bend, great-aunt Frank stepped in to be there with Charlie in the NICU. After watching little Charlie clutching the tubes and leads in her sterile environment, Frank made the little bear to help soothe the infant with a soft, fuzzy touch.
“She just wanted her to have something to cuddle,” said Frank’s friend, Patricia Toombs. As wonderful as the care in the unit may be, however, stuffed animals pose a problem, and staff took the little bear away.
“They put all the stuffed animals in plastic bags," said Frank. "They can’t wash them, can’t sanitize them.”
Paula Miller, Charlie's primary nurse when she was first admitted, explained, "Our patients are too fragile to be exposed to germs that can be harbored in stuffed animals."
After nurses removed the bear, Frank asked what she could do. She was told the infants could only have blankets.
“I asked, 'Can they have a blanket in the shape of a bear?'” said Frank. In the end, Frank created a little unstuffed, washable fleece bear, not quite as big as an adult’s hand. The idea was to give a soft cuddle in the midst of the hospital environment.
“It’s like being on a different planet. You just want them to have something fun,” said Frank. “Everything is so heartbreaking the rest of the time.”
Charlie lived just five months, but today Frank and her friends are still making bears. Twice a year, Frank heads to Riley and delivers the brightly colored bears.
"They bring us this big box. We take them from room to room and let the families choose," said nurse Miller. "It's really good for our families. It's nice for them to have something from someone's heart, someone's home ... We always run out."
"Often an unstuffed bear is the only thing they can have that is not hospital linen," said Miller. For the infants, she noted, "It actually gives them something to hold onto that's not their tubes."
Frank likes to make the bears as outrageous as she can make them, from tie-dyed to hot rods.
“I try to pick really fun colors,” said Frank. “It puts a pop of color in the isolette. Right now, I’ve got pink and purple leopard print.”
Frank estimates that about a thousand of the bears have been created since that first bear. Each year, Frank organizes a Bear Day, when a group gets together to assemble as many bears as they can. There are jobs for everyone, sewing skills aren't necessary. Everyone has fun, and enjoys lunch together, too.
“They have 60 beds in the NICU. I try to do 60 sets of two,” said Frank. By making two, each child will always have a bear, even when one is being washed. Last year, 15 people got together and made about 250 bears.
The bears are placed in paper bags, secured with a ribbon and decoratively stamped. “They come with a little story – the story of Charlie’s bear in fairy-tale format,” said Frank.
Frank doesn’t wait for Bear Day to make her creations. Her work room is always filled with bears in progress, neatly stacked. The bears keep company with stacks of colorful infant hats that Frank is crocheting and knitting as well.
“Liz is highly creative,” said Toombs. “She’s just a neat lady.”
Frank manages all the charitable creativity while balancing her work as a behavior consultant for the Medicaid waiver program, assisting developmentally disabled adults and children. Originally from Laporte, Frank has lived in Anderson since marrying Bryan 27 years ago.
"She's an incredible lady we're lucky to have," said Riley's nurse Miller. "She's been quite a blessing to us." Miller noted that the unit currently has no bears, and said with a smile, "We're waiting for delivery." They won't be waiting long.
This year’s Bear Day is set for Nov. 9, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. New participants are welcome. Contact Frank at 744-3459. More information, as well as the pattern for the bear, can also be found on the Facebook page for Charliesunstuffedbears.
Like Nancy Elliott on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @NancyElliott_HB, or call 640-4805.
Get involved What: Bear Day When: Saturday, Nov. 9, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. More info: Call 744-3459, email email@example.com or check out Charlie's Unstuffed Bears on Facebook.