How Ontario is giving their (woolen) hearts to comfort dying COVID-19 patients

Among the more devastating realities of the COVID-19 outbreak is that many of its victims die alone, even in cases where families know the end is coming.

In many cases, families can’t be together at the bedside in those final moments as health officials strive to keep the sick separated from the uninfected. 

You may have heard about some of the heart-wrenching stories this situation creates. Loved ones forced to give their final good-byes by video chat with nurses or doctors holding phones to frame the face of a patient 

Barbie Allen is an intensive care nurse, a 32-year veteran who has spent most of her career working in trauma centres and intensive care units in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital and most recently at hospitals in London, Ont. 

A bit of comfort at a ‘heartbreaking’ time

She says it’s painful to see patients die, unable to be visited by loved ones. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “We do have the family members on the phone or on FaceTime so they’re able to sort of be there but it’s really difficult.” 

Earlier this week, Allen saw a report about an effort to provide some comfort for families in this situation.

She first saw it happening at a hospital in Swindon, England. The idea was simple. 

Members of the community are asked to crochet pairs of wool hearts, each small enough to fit inside a hand. 

The hearts are then given to families with a loved one suffering from COVID-19 and in palliative care. 

The idea is to create a kind of connection during those final moments. 

“We put one heart into the patient’s hand, and another into the hand of a family member. So when we start the process, they both have hearts,” said Allen. “I think it helps at a difficult time. There’s something comforting about it.” 

Allen shared links to patterns for the hearts and put out a call on Facebook for crochet artists and hobbyists to make them and send them to her. They’ve responded. Big time. 

One pattern proving popular is this one on PlanetJune, a crochet blog run by June Gilbank of Waterloo, Ont.

“It’s happening all over Ontario now, a lot of people are making them and I have them in the trunk of my car right now, waiting to bring them in to work,” said Allen.

Allen has yet to use the hearts with a London family. They need to be properly sterilized before they’re brought into the hospital but she’s expecting to have her first pair ready today. 

It’s been a difficult time for families stricken by COVID-19, but also for Allen and her colleagues as they deal with an increasing caseload of coronavirus patients.

London nurse Barbie Allen says this RV, loaned to her by Can-Am RV Centre in London, gives her a place to sleep free from fear that she will infect people in her family with COVID-19. Allen works in the intensive care unit. (Submitted by Barbie Allen)

In a move aimed to protect her family from infection — including a son with severe asthma — Allen is living in an RV parked in her driveway. The RV was one of 15 provided on loan completely free to local healthcare workers by a London dealer who saw a way some of his idle stock could be put to good use. 


You can listen to Allen’s interview about the wool hearts and the RV here:

London ICU nurse Barbie Allen tells London Morning what life is like working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. She says she’s very grateful for the use of an RV she’s staying in so that she can keep her family safe. 7:51

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