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Volunteer’s hats warming heads, hearts in NICU

May. 22, 2014, 8:42 AM

Thorun Olsen, left, here with Amanda and David Mong and their son, Nolan, has been knitting tiny hats for babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital for nearly a quarter of a century. (photo by John Russell)

Thorun Olsen watched as two tiny, soft knitted hats — one pink and one blue — were placed on Nolan and Nora Mong’s petite heads to keep them warm in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

A teary-eyed Olsen stepped away for a moment, overcome by a rush of emotions.

“It’s such a joy to see,” she said, wiping her eyes and reflecting on her first visit to the NICU at Children’s Hospital.

Olsen has been knitting hats, at least three each day, for nearly 25 years, never wavering from her commitment to donate the hats to the babies of all sizes being cared for at Vanderbilt. Hundreds, if not thousands, of infants have donned the caps over the years.

As a tribute to her work, she was invited to tour the NICU to see how her hats, among the softest donated to the hospital, are impacting the lives of the infants.

“You’ve kept a lot of babies’ heads warm — that’s where they lose a lot of their heat,” said William Walsh, M.D., professor of Pediatrics and chief of Nurseries at Children’s Hospital, thanking her.

Erin Harvilla, R.N., NICU charge nurse and donation coordinator, also offered her gratitude to Olsen, “You’ve done some great work, you really have. They really do use what you make. You make a difference in these babies’ and families’ lives. You have to know that.”

Olsen’s passion began 25 years ago in August when she did a favor for a friend, Shirley Pohl.
Her friend’s daughter had delivered triplet boys prematurely. Born so tiny, none of the knitted hats available at Vanderbilt fit their petite heads. Pohl reached out to Olsen, who had been knitting since her mom taught her how at age 5 growing up in Norway.

“I didn’t have a pattern for preemie hats, so I made three or four different sizes and told her to let me know which ones worked,” said Olsen, a Nashville resident since 1974. “She said the hospital really liked them and asked me if I would make some more.”

She knits three or four hats every night. Friends and family share that even if she starts to doze off, her hands continue to work, weaving each thread together until they are one.

How many has she made? She doesn’t know.

“I never counted and I’m glad I didn’t because then the emphasis would be on me. I do this for the babies, to keep them warm,” Olsen said.

Making the hats and donating them is accomplished with a little help from her church family at Christ Lutheran Church, she says. Mary Behnke donates additional yarn on top of what Olsen buys. Andie Regg delivers the hats to the NICU. Olsen and Regg sing in the choir together along with Pohl, the grandmother of the triplets.

Humbled and grateful for being allowed to visit, Olsen said she had to go home and make some more hats.

“That was phenomenal, seeing those precious little babies,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I was going to see the babies that are the recipients. I’m glad (the hats) are being used and that the moms and dads appreciate them.”

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