They gave their hearts: After 25,000 acts of kindness, Kansas City volunteer program comes to an end

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - While the doctors and nurses at St. Luke's Mid America Heart Institute medically mend their patients' broken hearts, a group of dedicated volunteers helps as well.

"It feels wonderful that you were able to do something to make someone comfortable," said Helen Benthusen. "It was really comfortable to bring a pillow. I always brought the pillows down and to meet family in the hallway, they'd say, 'Oh, that's where the pillows come from' and how their patient enjoyed them."

Benthusen, who turned 98 years old this year, and her volunteers used needle and thread to make the post-surgery pillows. When the group, called the Telephone Pioneers, retired from AT&T back in the 1980s, they decided they still wanted to get together. So they formed the volunteer group in 1991.

"That made you feel good that you could go back and tell the girls," she said. "We knew we were doing something good. And at the same time, the fellowship that we developed between us - we had worked together and we were volunteering together. It was just a wonderful, wonderful project."

At the heart of the project is making pillows to help open heart surgery patients with their rehabilitation.

"[The medical staff] make the patients cough after they have surgery and that hurts," explained Benthusen. "So these pillows are filled with 100 percent polyfill. They are real soft, and they hold them against their chest and cough. It absorbs some of the hurt."

But after 26 years of hand-making and delivering the heart surgery pillows, Benthusen handed over her very last one on Thursday.

"All of our girls are getting up in age," she said. "Your fingers are not as pliable as they used to be. You can't see quite as well, so we decided that it was time to bring it to a close. We don't really want to, but it's kind of necessary right now."

In 1991, the group started with 30 volunteers. Only eight remain today. Over those nearly three decades, the women made 25,000 pillows for open heart surgery patients at St. Luke's Hospital.

"Every deep breath, every cough creates discomfort," explained nurse Beth Lee, the critical care director at St. Luke's Hospital. "Adding something that allows you to brace that helps reduce the pain."

The volunteers said they made thousands more for family, friends and neighbors.

"The patients have very much valued them because they do add not only a keepsake of the big procedure they've been through, but it also helps them," said Lee. "It's going to leave a big hole for us. It is something we have valued for the last 26 years. 

Lee said in that time, the pillows became legendary. Patients would get their doctors, nurses and even Benthusen to autograph them.

And while the program comes to a close, the hospital said the 25,000 acts of kindness with always be remembered.

St. Luke's wants to continue with a like-program. If you or someone you know is looking for a volunteer opportunity, the hospital invites you to reach out to volunteer services at 816-932-2448.

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