July 10, 2020

NYC Nurse Creates Handmade Blankets For Her Patients & Their Families With Love

Woman and nurses holding various blankets outside hospital

When Nurse Ally Marcello sees a problem, she covers it with love. 

The Long Island Jewish Medical Center ICU nurse has recently begun an effort to make personalized blankets for her patients and their family members. She started making the blankets right before COVID-19 hit. What started as a simple act has grown to where Marcello is receiving donations of both time and money to help buoy the effort. And, in the midst of a pandemic, she is able to provide a small memory and keepsake to those who lost loved ones. 

The simple act of offering a handmade, personal blanket to a sick patient or their worried loved one creates a goodwill well beyond the labor it takes to stitch it together. As a result, Marcello has become an inspiration both in person at her hospital and online amongst fellow nurses. 

We caught up with Marcello to ask her about the origins of the blankets, what they’ve meant to her patients and how she might see her program grow. 

Nurse with face mask holding wrapped up gift blanket


How did you become an ICU nurse?

It was a pretty lengthy process. I’d wanted to be a nurse for a while, so I did my four years at college to get my degree. My hospital, LIJ, offers a scholarship program where you interview in front of a panel. They look over your resume and ask you different clinical questions to assess what you learned and the things you researched to prepare for the interview. And then if you are one of the few selected, you go through a six-month training process. 

All nursing is intense, but the ICU is especially intense. Yet, you have the constitution for it. Why do you think that is?

Things don’t really bother me that much. I just really see the science of it. So, to me, I get to see how the different processes I learned about are actually like in real life. In the moment, you don’t even think about it. If someone’s bleeding, you just do what you have to do to stop the bleeding. Even if it’s something like someone is throwing up. You’re trying to, first of all, not get it all over your bed so you don’t have to clean it. And then you’re also trying to figure out why that’s happening. If they are a patient who had a brain surgery, is it because their brain is swelling or are there other things going on? So, there are always things you have to think about. But it never really bothers me. 

Did you have your own special blanket when you were a kid?

I did. I had it for a long time. It became pretty ratty and we had to throw it out eventually. But I did. I remember it was pink. It was kind of, like, that waffle material. I don’t know how to describe it. But it was really plain and I just brought it with me pretty much anywhere in the house. 

Woman outside holding wrapped up sunflower blanket


How did ISeeU start?

I was inspired by this family that we had on our unit. One of their family members was on our unit for almost two-to-three months. And due to his medical bills, the family was put out of their home. So, our unit decided as a whole that we wanted to do something special for them. Because we all grew to love them. I never actually took care of him, but anytime I was in there helping another nurse who was taking care of them, I would chat with the family. I grew to really like the patient and the family members. 

We all donated money to give them a really big Visa gift card and hosted a dinner for them. That way they could have a Christmas dinner while he was still in the hospital, because they didn’t really have anywhere to go, I wanted to do something else special for them because I just felt so bad that they didn’t have a home for Christmas time. 

I remember I made one of these blankets one time way back in the day in sixth grade for my teacher, Mrs. Kelly, when her mom was going to hospice care. I remember making it and how easy and simple it was. And how much she appreciated it. So, I thought, maybe I can do that for them. They loved it so much I figured I might as well keep it going for the other patients to let them know we’re there for them. 

Tell us about the sympathy bags you are giving to the families who lost someone to COVID-19?

I am incorporating my ISeeU Blankets into a new project where we send sympathy bags to the families who lost someone to COVID 19 in our ICUs. Each bag contains an ISeeU Blanket, a candle, and flower seeds. We were able to fingerprint some of the patients and get their ECG. These are framed and put in the bag as well. 

Gift basket sitting on lawn

Framed ecg readings

How many blankets have you made so far?

It’s really hard to keep track. But I’ve made probably close to 50.

Is it all out of your own pocket?

No, I have received well over $1,000 in donations, actually, which has been really, really helpful. Only the first two blankets were out of my pocket. People really liked what I was doing and they started donating money to me and I started GoFundMe. And then NurseLifeRN on Instagram reposted one of my posts and I had people from all over the country donating money to me. Overnight, I got over a grand. Just from the one night, which was pretty amazing.

Thank you not on issue blankets instagram

How much does it cost to make a blanket?

It ranges. There are some kits that come with fabric together and instructions and usually I can get them for about $20. But sometimes when I really splurge, the blankets can get close to $40-50 if I get the really nice fabric by the yard. 

As a nurse, you have many responsibilities. What drives you to have this extra effort to help people with your blankets?

I have been on the other side of patient care with my grandma being in and out of the hospital. It really helped me and my family, made us feel at ease, when the nurses went the extra mile for her and when she would tell us about the nurses she really liked. So, I know that little things really have an impact on the family. It was one of the things that I brought up in my interview. I believe in the simple things, in the little things during the day that can just change someone’s day. Like, giving a patient a comb just to comb their hair to make themselves feel a little bit better.

The simplicity of just a bed-bath can make someone feel human again. Little things like that. I’m happy to spend my extra time doing this. It’s also very therapeutic making the blankets. So, if I’m stressed, I start making them and it takes my mind off of things. It makes me happy knowing that when I’ve finished a blanket, I can picture the smiles that I can get from this blanket and how much people appreciate it. 

Nurse and healthcare practitioners holding award in instagram post

Can you talk more about why you value little acts of kindness?

Patients and family members are very thankful, whether it’s me just going in the room and taking the time to explain everything that’s on the monitor, everything that’s going to go on for the night and what to expect in their hospital stay. Or if it’s something like I put on their favorite music for the patient while I’m giving them a bath or doing their morning care or taking the time to talk with the family to just get to know them and look at the pictures of their family and things like that, making jokes with them. They’re always very thankful. 

When I give the blankets to the family members, usually they hug me and they tell me, “You don’t understand how much this means to us.” Some people think that we’re there and we take care of them and they know the nurses care for them. But they also feel like we don’t 100% see what they’re going through. But they say that the blankets really help them feel like we really do see what they’re going through and sympathize and empathize with all of that. 

I gave a blanket recently to a patient who is mainly Russian-speaking. And I happened to have a doctor there who spoke Russian there to explain it. But even with the language barrier, she was so touched by the blanket that she was hugging me and kissing me. Now she’s like my best friend. Every time I see her on the unit, she’s blowing me kisses. So, it’s just those little things.

Long handwritten thank you note addressed to ally


What other little acts of kindness have you witnessed between nurses and patients?

Yeah, actually on our unit, there is another nurse on the day shift who knits hats for the patients. Her name is Marie and she’s been doing it for a while. She gets yarn from people and she knits the hats and every now and then we give a hat that matches a blanket to coordinate. She’s been doing that for a while. That was part of my inspiration, too. To give something to them because it’s cold on our unit. I know that the medical ICU at our hospital gives little care boxes, especially when someone passes away. They print out a rhythm strip of their heartbeat. They put little personalized things in the box to give to the family to bring home. So, I know of those things.

How would you like to see ISeeU grow?

I don’t know. I haven’t even really thought of it. This is all happening quickly. I just thought it would be a thing that I did on my own unit. But now people from other cities are asking me how they can implement my project. Someone from Chicago was messaging me, asking if they could continue my project. Nursing students were asking me if they could do that or help with volunteer hours. A lot of people are reaching out asking if they can help. I actually just worked with a Girl Scout troop yesterday and they helped me make all of these blankets for my patients. So, it’s growing very rapidly and I didn’t even think any of this would happen. So, I guess what I see for it in the future is just expanding to other areas. 

Woman next to four gift bags


What would you like to share about your experience working in a COVID-19 hotspot?  

I work at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park/Queens NY. We were designated the COVID-19 hotspot by the Governor which meant that we were getting all of the COVID patients. Our hospital capacity is around 600 beds and we surged to 900 patients with around 150 critical care patients on ventilators. 

My unit, the Surgical ICU, was converted into a COVID ICU back in March. Due to the surge in patients we had to turn other med-surg units into makeshift ICUs. One night I was doing overtime as a functional RN. This means I was basically an extra set of hands with no patient assignment. Within an hour of my shift starting, about 8pm, I got a call from the nurse manager saying that he needed my help moving patients out of 6N and bringing in ICU equipment. After getting all the materials and creating the ICU, we then proceeded to admit 5 vented patients back-to back-to back. Eventually that whole unit and the adjacent unit were full of vented patients.

One of the worst nights I had was when I was working in the PACU and I had a very sick patient. I knew during the shift change report that he was not going to make it. He was almost maxed on 3 pressors so I made sure to call the family and let them know the gravity of the situation. While they were on FaceTime saying their goodbyes, he went into an asystole. Having to tell the family that their dad had passed was hard, but hanging up the FaceTime afterwards was even harder. Choosing that moment to end communication forever between a father and his children was the hardest decision I have ever made and it broke me.

Another hard night that stuck out in my mind, even though they were all hard, was when we just were running from emergency to emergency. I was helping a nurse intubate a patient in one room and after we put the tube in and were securing it, I heard my friend scream my name from the next room. I ran in and they were doing compressions on a 35yo, so I started to push emergency medications. After we got ROSC, I walked out of the room, took a breath, and looked down the hall only to find another crash cart at a room down the hall. I run in and they're coding another 60yo man. I help in compressions and after about 15min we decided to call it. After washing up, things got a little messy, I walked back to check on everyone and I heard a pump beeping. I looked in the room and the 35 year old patient’s Levophed had finished infusing. Quickly I switched the bag but he was so sensitive to the medication that he dropped his pressure and went into asystole again. I yelled for the doctor who came in and started compressions. I restarted the levophed and pushed the epi and we got ROSC again. This was the 3rd time he had coded. Unfortunately we called the family and let them come in for an end-of-life visit. The patient’s fiance decided to withdraw care so myself and 2 other nurses and the doctor held his hands and comforted the patient as he passed away. I will never forget him and his fiance.

Those are just a few of the many stories I have during COVID, but it was honestly horrible. I was taking care of 4 vented patients at a time and I was working 5 shifts a week instead of our usual 3. I still live at home but I lived in only my room and the bathroom away from my family for months. I thank the many wonderful travel nurses that came to relieve us because without them we would've lost many more patients and we would've been worked past exhaustion. Finally my heart rate doesn't spike when I see the hospital, but I will still feel the emotional effects of working during the pandemic for a long time. 

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