1. Friis-Jensen, Nancy RN, CNOR

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The Heart Pillow is a project designed to help breast cancer patients, but it's much more than that. It's a story about women helping women and about a network that crosses many boundaries, venues, and settings. The Heart Pillow is about stories inside of a story.

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Healing is where the heart is

The origin of the heart pillow is unknown, but this network started when Janet Kramer-Mai, an oncology nurse at Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. Three of her aunts from Indiana made and sent her a heart-shaped pillow to use after her surgery. The pillow, which fits comfortably under the arm, can relieve pain from the surgical incision, protect against accidental bumps, help ease edema, and relieve shoulder tension. Exactly where her aunts got the idea to make a heart-shaped pillow to ease the discomforts of breast surgery is unknown. Ms. Kramer-Mai was helped so much by this simple idea that she started the project at her hospital, with volunteer groups making the pillows. The heart pillows are given immediately to patients postoperatively to aid in recuperation.


There are several benefits to the heart pillow that go beyond its practical purpose. It gives women, families, and patients the opportunity to help in a concrete and immediate way, as well as ease their feelings of helplessness. Some women use the project as a form of therapy to relieve their own helpless feelings when facing a disease they can't control. It's a way to focus on doing something for and connecting with other women. And last, but not least, the pillow gives psychological comfort and something to hold onto when their world has just been turned upside down. With this gift, they know they aren't alone and others are thinking of their needs even though they don't know them personally.


Humble beginnings

Though I live in Denmark and work in a urology OR at Frederiksberg Hospital, I was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn. While in the United States attending the 2006 Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN) Congress in Washington, D.C., I took the opportunity to go home and visit my former workplace, Erlanger Medical Center. While there, Ms. Kramer-Mai graciously agreed to talk to me about their unique breast cancer treatment facility. She gave me the heart pillow and highly praised its benefits.


Upon returning to Denmark with the pillow, I couldn't stop reflecting on how breast cancer had touched my life. A 38-year-old colleague of mine and mother to a 3-year-old girl and 3-month-old son was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. I remembered the pain and edema she suffered after surgery and the enormous feeling of helplessness I felt at being unable to help her. I realized how much the heart pillow could have comforted and helped my friend during her recovery period had we known about it then.


In an effort to spread the word about the postoperative benefits of the heart pillow for breast cancer patients, my first step was to present the project to the American Women's Club in Denmark (AWC Denmark), a nonprofit organization that raises money for philanthropy, cultural, and educational awards. They were positive, supportive, and willing to help finance and make the pillows.


Since my hospital doesn't treat breast cancer patients, I contacted the University Hospital in Copenhagen. In August 2006, the hospital agreed to a 10-pillow trial and the results were an overwhelming success.


Largely through word of mouth, the pillows became very popular with women undergoing breast cancer treatment. Some would even request the heart pillow upon admittance. AWC Denmark agreed to continue to help make the pillows, giving financial aid and promoting the project in their newsletter. A "pillow talk" group was organized to meet once a month to work on the pillows while enjoying each other's company, refreshments, and discussing everything from the latest movies to the world situation.


In October 2007, the heart pillow was introduced to a second Danish hospital, Herlev Hospital. Additional funding was supplied by Pink Tribute, a breast cancer support association involved in planning fundraising events that bring awareness to the disease.


The heart pillow project has now expanded to ten more Danish hospitals, with many individuals across Denmark donating their time to help make the pillows. Many groups are dedicated to helping make the heart pillows, such as patchwork clubs, senior citizen groups, and Lion Clubs. Supplies are often discounted or donated. At no time has fabric been bought for the pillows, all having been donated mainly by individuals wanting to contribute.


Worldwide appeal

In March 2007, a representative of the AWC Denmark attended a conference of the Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas (FAWCO), with over 36 countries represented at the conference. She had a Danish newsletter with her that was read by a member of the AWC Greece. The newsletter on the benefits of the heart pillow quickly spread throughout the conference and the project was extended to hospitals in Greece, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Italy, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Netherlands, France, Mexico, and back to the United States.


Time constraints and the magnitude of the project, necessitated the use of another networking tool. A Web site was launched ( along with a MySpace site ( as another way to reach more people about the benefits of the heart pillow.


A heartfelt project

In today's busy world and with the pressures to provide quality care in a precise and timely manner, the pillow is an ideal solution that can be used in many settings, such as wards, outpatient and ambulatory clinics, and treatment facilities.


The network has spread to a total of 16 countries worldwide and continues to grow literally every day. Cultural differences must be considered when starting and the individual projects should be adapted to meet this diversity. It must be realized that networking takes time, both in regard to expanding but most importantly in taking care of the established network. Many possibilities are yet to be explored, including school community service, private company support, and public funding.


It's our intent that this project remain a women-to-women endeavor, voluntary and free-a gift. If we're able to help just a few of the women who are suffering, then it's a success. The goal is to provide a pillow to every woman in need. The dream is that soon, there will no longer be a need.