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Veterinarians care for colleagues one stitch at a time

Knitters create afghans for those facing heart-wrenching hardship

July 31, 2012
By Phyllis DeGioia

Photo courtesy of Dr. Eric Lovell
An afghan crafted by veterinarians covers the Lovell family in warmth from the VIN community. VIN knitters created the piece in response to colleague Dr. Kim Lovell's diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a motor neuron disease commonly referred to as ALS. Seated with Kim (center) are her children, Kaylee, now 6, and Zachary, 10.
Dr. Sandra Tuominen's husband Mark suffered a massive stroke in February 2010, while their family of five was in Las Vegas for the Western Veterinary Conference.  

He died a few days later.  

In her distress, Tuominen turned to her colleagues at the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession, and began a message board discussion titled "Complete personal devastation."

“He was my life and my world. He was the best husband,” Tuominen wrote. “... I am numb at the moment, and fearing when the floodgates will open, and I will be overcome with grief. Right now, I need to figure out how we are getting home, as my husband drove us across country to get here, and then try to figure out how to live without my rock and my best friend, my soul mate.”

Within minutes, veterinarians — most of whom Tuominen had never met — responded with offers to help. Some proposed driving her car back to Minnesota so her family could fly home; others sought to help her make arrangements or get a refund from the conference she never attended.

A few days after Tuominen’s initial post, Dr. Michele Pfannenstiel of Freehold, N.J., suggested a tangible way to help Tuominen in a separate VIN discussion titled “Thoughts and Prayers and Actions”:

"I thought I would start a thread over here on the stress folder for those who would like to offer and ask for thoughts and prayers and maybe actions for our fellow VINners, family members and loved ones when they are going through a rough time. ... I also thought that this might be a place where we might come together, and think of things we can do to help out our fellow VINners in times of deep personal tragedy.” 

From there, an afghan project was born. Pfannenstiel proposed that anyone who wished to could knit or crochet 8-by-8-inch squares and send them to her so she could put an afghan together for Tuominen. Color didn't matter, but she asked for washable yarn.  

"My thought is something nice and big, made by many hands, that they could snuggle under and feel warm and safe and protected," Pfannenstiel wrote in the thread.  

In an interview with the VIN News Service, Pfannenstiel explained that her idea to craft afghans for colleagues came from the Internet, where members of an online forum made memorial afghans or quilts for grieving mothers who'd lost children.

"People don't know what to say or do, but doing these afghans is a way of telling families that we remember you and your child because that child disappears,” Pfannenstiel said. “Nobody talks about it because nobody knows what to say. ... I put the idea together so when she missed her husband she could crawl up in it, and remember getting a hug from him."  

On VIN, the idea caught on, and veterinarians got busy making squares and sending them to Pfannenstiel. "They don't have to perfect ... just made with love," she wrote, responding to those who feared their squares might have imperfections.

Photos courtesy of Drs. Carole Tice and Patricia Baley
Dr. Sandra Tuominen and her children received an afghan (left) from VIN knitters after her husband, Mark, died in 2010. A second afghan (right) was sent to Dr. Heather Westfall after it was revealed on VIN that she was suffering from medical problems. Both recipients said they were deeply moved by the gesture.
After Pfannenstiel put the call out for knitters, Dr. Patricia Baley of Hockley, Texas, pointed out another VIN member who might be in need of an afghan. Dr. Heather Westfall of Hamburg, Pa., was having medical problems that were difficult to diagnose. With so many squares coming in for Tuominen's afghan, Baley offered to help put a second one together.

Two months into the project for Tuominen, however, Pfannenstiel needed help to complete it. Her father was dying, so Dr. Carol Tice, of Morrisville, N.C., finished piecing together the afghan.

Without her help, “it would not ever have gotten finished,” Pfannenstiel said.  

Little did the knitters on VIN know, but Tuominen knew about the afghan. While reading VIN message boards, she noticed the discussion titled “Thoughts and Prayers and Actions.” Thinking someone else was in need of help, she read it.  

"I stared at the computer for two minutes and was unable to say anything, and tears ran down my face,” Tuominen said. “I was in such disbelief from the kindness and outreach. It was all just overwhelming. It was probably a couple of weeks after that, that the afghan arrived."  

Tuominen posted a note of thanks in the message board thread.

"I stumbled on this thread a couple of weeks ago, I was stunned to find that it was about me! I sat and read it and I was absolutely speechless. My hands ... no, my whole body, was shaking and tears were pouring down my face. Some of my staff came in (I was on the computer in the break room), and they asked me what was wrong. All I could do was point to the computer and let them read."  

Tuominen said she uses the afghan all the time. Her kids call it the "daddy blanket." All of them can fit under it together. At times some of their six dogs and five cats join them.

The emotion that went into her afghan's making is not lost on the veterinarian.  

“It was just overwhelming to see how much people want to help,” Tuominen said. “I still get overwhelmed when I think about it. The meaning, the caring, the love behind that blanket, it's just incredible. I still want to express how overwhelmed I am with the VIN community and how everybody stepped up. I posted struggles daily for a year; it helped to know people were still reading it."

The thread attracted more than 1,000 messages from VIN members.

Baley, who offered to put together the second set of squares for Dr. Heather Westfall, the ailing veterinarian in Pennsylvania, is a knitter skilled and artistic enough to sell her projects at art festivals. She pieced together the second afghan by knitting intricate edging in-between the squares rather than seaming them.  

Those nominated on VIN to receive afghans, Baley explained, have been "hit hardest by life."

"Knitting and fiber arts are all about comfort, providing something to keep people warm or protection when you can't really provide protection. I think it's some kind of deep, cultural human instinct to help people out, and fiber artists are more in touch with that."  

Westfall received her afghan in June 2010. In a recent email to the VIN News Service, she explained how support from colleagues has impacted her life in a positive way.

"I have this autoimmune foolishness to deal with for a lifetime, but since I finally have a diagnosis and support of so many, I know I can do it.” she wrote. “... The afghan is the most touching gift I have ever received in my entire life, and not a day goes by that I don't find encouragement and comfort from it, whether it's a good day or not so good. It's a generous gift from the hearts of so many wonderful friends from VIN. I reached out and got so much back. I wish there were an adequate way to express my heartfelt thanks to all who supported me."  

This year, a third afghan recipient was nominated.

Dr. Kim Lovell began a message board discussion in January with a sobering announcement. She had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease or ALS. Her concern was not for herself but for her family. "The long-term prognosis for me is death by respiratory paralysis in three to five years," she wrote. "I get hysterical when I think of my children who are just 5 and 10 years old."  

Lovell initially had reservations about writing something so personal but ultimately decided she needed to talk about her diagnosis with colleagues, especially those who run businesses with their spouses. She and her husband, Dr. Eric Lovell, own a veterinary hospital in of Pensacola, Fla.

Lovell no longer practices medicine but does office work. A second full-time associate was hired so her husband can limit work to three days a week.  

"It accomplished what I thought beyond my wildest dreams," Lovell said of her message board post. "People posted prayers, support, what I should talk to the kids about because that is one of my biggest worries and what that is going to do to them. People were full of suggestions. The personal stories ... all of that was very helpful.”  

VIN members from Jacksonville, Fla., offered Lovell a place to stay when she went to the nearby Mayo Clinic. Then a package arrived at her home. The return address said, "VIN Knitters."

"I didn't read the message board until after the blanket arrived," Lovell said, referring to the series of posts on VIN from veterinarians creating her afghan. "The thread made it that much more special because they sent it anonymously with no note or anything. When I read how many people contributed squares, I knew they were doing it at their practices while dripping fluids.”  

Everyone in the Lovell family can sit together and be covered by the afghan.  

Along with the blanket came words of advice: Take time off to do the things you desire; videotape your words of wisdom; write letters for future milestones; take time to grieve but also to live; record family stories, songs and memories from your childhood.

Lovell liked the suggestions, particularly the advice about what to say — and not to say — to her young children.

She's grateful for the years she has left to spend with family. “You find things you are thankful for, and I am certainly thankful for that."

Those who knitted the afghan want Lovell's children to remember cuddling with their mother, and hope that the blanket might become a cherished heirloom.

To Lovell, it's a treasure.

“You can imagine how much (the afghan) will be appreciated, but there are no words to say what I feel when I look at it,” she said. “I can't put into words how much it means to me."  

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.


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