Michael Harding, who has been a volunteer with the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre for 10 years, says when he was recovering from his heart surgery a man from UHN Volunteer Resources showed "me how to use the pillow because he understood how much of an impact it has." (Photo: UHN)

When he underwent heart surgery 14 years ago, Michael Harding never imagined a soft, squeezable piece of stuffed fabric would be a key to his recovery.

Michael had a section of an aorta replaced due to an aneurysm at Peter Munk Cardiac Centre (PMCC). Soon after the surgery, a UHN volunteer visited, bringing along a heart-shaped pillow, which not only got him through his recovery, but provided the impetus for his own volunteerism.

"It was really effective, it was really surprising how much it helped," he says of the pillow, designed, manufactured and delivered by UHN volunteers, including Michael, who works with cardiac patients on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The pillows come in all different patterns and colours, but only one shape – a heart.

And, for about 20 years they have been an important if unexpected tool PMCC offers patients. The program also provides pillows to thoracic patients at Toronto General Hospital (TG).

The pillows are multi-purpose, designed and used to support patients throughout recovery. After surgery, a patient hugs the pillow to stabilize their breastbone while coughing. Once discharged, the pillow follows on the road to recovery acting as a barrier between the seatbelt and chest when they depart for home.

"It's touched a lot of people and it's something that people really like," says Veronica Deally, UHN Volunteer Resources Project Coordinator. "Yes, it serves a purpose while they cough and when using a seat belt, but I think it also reminds them that they are survivors.

"It is a physical reminder that they are able to get through anything."

In partnership with Wellness, as part of its Refresh program, the Patient Pillow Program is funded entirely by Volunteer Resources through book sales, bake sales, and donations. The program creates an average of about 30 to 40 pillows monthly.

The cardiac program sees anywhere from six to 10 patients discharged per day. The goal is to provide each one of them with a pillow.

To keep up with demand, the Corporate Engagement Volunteering Program was created. Eight companies have been a part of the program since 2018.

Also, on the first Thursday of every month, the program has teamed up with Volunteer Resources' Music for the Heart and Soul program, so that volunteers and the TG community can sew to music in the DeGasperis Conservatory.  

Only recently did Volunteer Resources become aware that, for more than 40 years, a group of retired Bell Media employees have been making red heart-shaped pillows for Toronto General.

"That has been really good because it has created a steady flow of pillow production," says Veronica. "It has become a true team effort."

Other members of the community have witnessed the power of the pillows and taken it upon themselves to work together to create more. Volunteers have included mothers in Etobicoke who gathered at the local community centre with sewing machines, students at the University of Toronto, and the executive teams at UHN.

"The program's outreach into the community has become something much bigger and touches everybody," Veronica says. "It's incredible to see."

retired Bell Media employees
A group of retired Bell Media employees have been making red heart-shaped pillows for more than 40 years. (Photo: Courtesy Dorothy Roberts)

Acknowledgment of the Patient Pillow Program has recently spread even more broadly. It was recognized last month at the Points of Light Conference in Minnesota for being a catalyst in creating positive change.

It's entirely volunteer

Heart surgery involves taking apart and putting back together the sternum, which may temporarily alter the shape and movement of the chest.

According to Dr. Paul Oh, Medical Director of the Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation Program at PMCC and Toronto Rehab, the chest is already put under a lot of stress by daily activities. Couple that with a surgery like this, and it could be quite painful.

"Imagine if we broke an arm and kept swinging it around?" Dr. Oh says. "We can't put a cast on a ribcage."

However, a key component of recovery is coughing after surgery.

"Our lungs are meant to expand fully," he says. "If the lungs collapse with fluid or secretions, they can become infected."

The best defense against infection is to breathe deeply and cough, but the pain makes it difficult.

That's where the pillow comes in. When pressed against the chest, it creates a stabilizing effect easing pain and anxiety.

"The heart pillow is a great symbol of the heartfelt care provided by our outstanding clinical teams and volunteers," Dr. Oh says. "Embracing that pillow at home encourages our patients to engage in self-care and compassion to get better."

For Michael, when a volunteer visited him after his surgery, it was the most pivotal moment of his recovery.

"When he came to visit me it made a big difference because I was speaking with someone who had been through it and could relate to what I was feeling," he says.

"He showed me how to use the pillow because he understood how much of an impact it has."

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