TAMPA — Brittany Weatherby didn’t know how to crochet when she started her job as a registered nurse at St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital, and she never dreamed of learning how.
Maybe her grandma used to, she tried to remember, but Weatherby never really had an interest. Then she met Paula MacDonald in the labor and delivery unit.
MacDonald had a way of brightening up their corner of the hospital, her friends and coworkers say. She had big brown eyes and a heartwarming smile. She was caring and nurturing to her fellow nurses and was always the voice of positivity and reassurance, even on the saddest days.
She also excelled at knitting and crocheting, and made a habit of teaching those skills to coworkers, until her unexpected death last fall from a heart attack. She was 52.
"Her goal was to knit 700 hats a month," said nurse manager Pam Eaton, who crochets regularly now. "So now that’s our goal. To give every newborn a hat."
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It began as a way to remember MacDonald, whose picture hangs above a basket at the nurse’s station where the donated caps and hats are collected. Under her picture reads the inscription: "With love from an angel, yarn woven together, hats with heart."
But it grew into something much larger. More than 50 nurses and support staff across St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital now knit and crochet more than 600 hats a month for newborn babies in MacDonald’s honor.
Secretaries and technicians contribute. So does a team from laboratory services at the main hospital across the street. Volunteers from the hospital and others from in the community drop off hats or donate yarn. Even MacDonald’s mother in Peabody, Mass., still mails a batch of knit hats to the hospital every month.
With up to 30 babies born a day at St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital, they all find their way to a tiny head.
In October, the nurses create ghosts with big, ghoulish eyes and funny green Frankenstein monsters. Last month, they adorned newborns with orange pumpkins with dangling green vines or a colorful turkey with protruding fall-colored pom poms. For December, they have started on red Santa hats and reindeer antlers.
Sometimes they design color-matching caps for twins with a bow and bow tie. Other times they crochet blue caps with a bolt for the Tampa Bay Lightning or garnet and gold for the Florida State University Seminoles.
When April the giraffe became internet famous, as millions around the world waited for the animal to give birth at a New York zoo, the nurses at St. Joseph’s created a special giraffe cap and gifted it to the baby born the closest to the big day.
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MacDonald learned how to knit from her mother when she was still living in Massachusetts. For as long as she worked at St. Joseph’s in Tampa, the seasoned nurse cobbled together colorful, one-of-a-kind caps for newborns at the hospital.
And she was patient when passing down those skills to her fellow nurses.
"You never did anything wrong in her eyes," Brittany Weatherby said. For a while, the two worked together on night shifts, when fashioning caps from yarn began as a casual way to pass the time. But it was also a way to add a personal touch to their care for expecting and delivering mothers.
"She was a great teacher and a kind nurse," Weatherby said. "She was always in a great mood."
Today, MacDonald’s colleagues are getting so good at their craft, they sometimes take requests.
"Some of us are good at certain things, like making the eyeballs. So when one hat is almost done, someone else will take it on just to finish it. We have new nurses learning every week," said Jennifer Bigger, a registered nurse at St. Joseph’s.
Eaton remembers a time when MacDonald volunteered to try to make a Peter Pan-themed green cap, complete with the classic red feather. A soon-to-be mom was having an emotional time leading up to her labor, so MacDonald was determined to get it right. And she did, Eaton said.
"Another time, she came up with a hat for a special baby who was born with congenital heart disease," Bigger said. "It was a heart-themed hat."
For Whitney Brewer, who gave birth to her third daughter, Hattie, the week of Thanksgiving, the turkey hat her daughter received was something she knew she’d keep forever.
"It’s so much more personal than the usual blue and pink hats they get at other hospitals," said Brewer, who lives in Tampa. "My two girls came in to meet their new sister and they had so much fun with the turkey holiday hat."
Wesleigh Stewart, also of Tampa, said the hand-made hat for her newborn son was an example of the extra mile the nurses go at St. Joseph’s to make the experience special. "It just shows how far they’re willing to go to support their patients," she said.
For nurse Weatherby, who is expecting her second child named Avery in January, it’s given her a lot to think about.
"There are no fun holidays in January for a themed hat for Avery," she said.
But she’s excited to see which kind of hat her coworkers pick out for her daughter, when the time comes.
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.