Stitching Together Tributes of Love

By: Martin Kinnunen

Raising awareness of organ donation and transplant during Donate Life Month.It’s difficult for Nancy Olson to pick a favorite.

Each of the roughly 40 cloth squares she has stitched together to make two vibrant quilts tells a remarkable story about a patient at UPMC Presbyterian who has received a special gift ─ a heart or lung transplant.

“I have never met any of the people who made these squares,” said Olson, a volunteer at UPMC and retiree who worked as a transcriptionist. “But, as I worked with the squares, I felt like there was a connection to the people who made them.”

Asked to pick a couple squares that really stood out, Olson paused to reflect and then mentioned one square with an image of a man tethered to an oxygen cord and tank. Within the same square, the man is walking a dog without the aid of oxygen, showing how a transplant transformed his life.

Olson also noted that the poetry expressed on various squares are moving tributes to the selflessness of others that make organ transplantation possible.

The quilts, which will be displayed on the Cardiothoracic Unit at UPMC Presbyterian, are inspiring, she said. That same adjective applies to Olson and the generous ways the Murrysville, Pennsylvania, resident gives of her time and talents to serve as a volunteer.

Giving Back After a Personal Tragedy

Raising awareness of organ donation and transplant during Donate Life Month.Olson’s son, Keith Olson, was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 25 years old. Ten years later, he was told he needed a life-saving kidney and pancreas transplant.

The transplant (completed at UPMC Presbyterian) was a success, and he enjoyed a productive life for eight years. However, in 2012, he passed away after developing lymphoma.

While spending long hours in hospital waiting rooms, his mother came to the realization that she wanted to give back. The experience was the genesis for providing pet therapy with DiDi, a gentle Shetland sheepdog who enjoys giving and receiving affection.

Most Tuesdays, DiDi and Olson visit family lounges and nursing stations at UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Montefiore. Every other Friday, the pair make a similar visit to UPMC Shadyside and the Hillman Cancer Center.

“I share her,” said Olson, pointing to DiDi. “And, she brings smiles.”

It was Olson’s giving nature that led to her involvement in the quilt project.

“Shelley Zomak [director, UPMC Presbyterian Cardiothoracic Transplant Unit] told me several times that she had quilt squares made by heart and lung patients that needed to be pieced together and turned into quilts,” said Susan Allen-Umerley, program administrator in UPMC Transplant Services. “I thought there must be a volunteer here somewhere who would love to piece this quilt. I called the volunteer office and they told me that one of their volunteers does quilting and might be interested. They gave me Nancy’s name. I talked to her about the project and she was all in.”

Olson learned to sew in junior high and has sewn her entire life. She took up quilting 15 years ago and belongs to several quilting groups.

“This is not my best work,” she said humbly referring to the hospital quilt project that she worked on for nearly a year. “But, it is something that I may be the most proud of.”