A Hillman Cancer Center volunteer and former patient, Kathy Dalbo, has made hundreds and hundreds of hats for patients who have lost their hair due to chemotherapy treatments, and some who just want to look pretty and cover the bedhead that inevitably occurs during hospital stays.
Dalbo’s bright blue eyes sparkle as she talks about her “little hat project” and how she chooses her fabrics to ensure warmth and comfort. In addition to the halls of Hillman, Dalbo’s hats get around, having been shipped all over the Eastern seaboard. The self-taught seamstress takes special care ensuring high-quality workmanship and detail more akin to something you’d see on a 1920s flapper, not on a CancerCenter unit.
Q: Why did you decide to volunteer?
A: I was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2011, and I had the surgery and chemo treatments up on the third floor. I had the most wonderful volunteer, Earl, who used to come and visit me. He knew what I liked and what I didn’t like, and the things I liked would just kind of appear. He just made the whole experience much better, and really wonderful. I would always tell him, “You know, I’m coming back and volunteering,” and that’s what I did. The day I had my last chemo — my hair was about a quarter inch long — I finished the chemo and I came down here that very day and signed up to be a volunteer.
Q: How do you make the hats?
A: It’s a one-woman team here and I design and sew them. I bring in anywhere from 30 to 60 hats at a time and round all the floors, sort of letting the patients go shopping for a free hat.
I get a lot of special orders. I just got a request for a hat to wear to a wedding. I got a request from someone north of here with specific colors for her uniform. I drove them up to her, and we had lunch.
I have businesses who would like to sell them, but the money is not important. Instead of profiting, I choose to make them for patients. I profit more in my heart. Hillman is my heart.
Q: Do you only make hats for women?
A: Once I had a request from one of the doctors upstairs who asked for a not-too-flowery hat. Even though I didn’t have one, I told him, “Give me an hour.” I stopped and bought three beautiful hats and brought them in. So I may not have what you need, but I have a way of acquiring it! The gentleman was very happy. Those moments bring me such joy. It’s rewarding when I see people wearing my hats. It warms my heart because I’ve been there, and I know where they’re coming from.
A: I had wonderful doctors. I had a wonderful surgeon, Dr. Joshua Rubin, and I still see him to this day. The people here are lovely — the doctors, nurses and staff. I wanted to come back and give back for them, too.
Everybody thinks that I should have had enough of Hillman but it’s not a depressing place. The patients are full of life. We have a wonderful time, great laughs, and great conversations upstairs.
I may not be the doctor or nurse, I can’t do what they do, but I can make my hats and hopefully inspire other people to give back in their own way. A lady who told me I’m her inspiration, now she makes bracelets and donates them to Magee-Womens Hospital. Also, a patient up north asked for information on how I started the project so she could start it in her own community. My little hat project has snowballed and given others inspiration to pay it forward.
Q: Speaking of inspiration, whatever happened to Earl?
A: Earl still volunteers here. I see him all the time, he’ll tell the patients, “You know, I used to know her when she was bald.” That’s how he introduces me to patients. It’s great because he saw me as a cancer patient and now the patients see me on the other side and I think there is comfort in that.
Simple little acts can really impact someone. I will do it as long as I can possibly do it. It’s so rewarding to walk the corridors and to have people wave and say, “Hey, there’s the hat lady!”