Sometimes small gestures can have a huge impact. That’s the thought behind Operation Chemo Comfort, which supports cancer patients by providing knit hats and “care kits” to make life a bit more comfortable. The organization was started in 2016 by Kelsey Lexow ’04 and Carrie O’Connor. Both are Medical College of Wisconsin employees.
“It’s important patients know that people care about them. We want them to know they’re not alone during one of the most difficult problems they likely will encounter,” said Lexow, a clinical research coordinator in radiation oncology.
Lexow learned that an item as simple as a hat can make a world of difference. “One patient received a hat and said they were glad because they were worried about losing their hair and having to ride a bus to treatment without one—and this was in the dead of winter. Being involved with this organization, you are providing very necessary services for people who can’t afford something as basic as a nice warm hat. It’s a very humbling experience.”
The inspiration for Operation Chemo Comfort was Connie Seekins, a stage IV pancreatic cancer patient who was providing care kits to fellow patients. “When you see someone that critically ill taking care of people, as a healthy person you really don’t have an excuse not to get involved,” Lexow said.
That’s when O’Connor told Lexow she wanted to create comfort-care kits with items like tissues and lip balm for patients. Lexow, who enjoys crafting, suggested they include hats for patients who had lost their hair due to treatments.
“I’ve been knitting for 30 years; we’re a very artsy-craftsy family,” Lexow said. “I’ve had family members and friends who’ve had cancer, and I’ve made things for them when they needed them. Working at the Medical College, you see a very definite need to support patients. It’s the largest cancer center in southeast Wisconsin and serves a lot of underserved populations.”
The group started with 42 kits, and now has donated more than 8,000 hats and headscarves to Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin Clinical Cancer Center, Ascension, ABCD: After Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Sisters 4 Cure.
“It’s very grass-roots, a word-of-mouth kind of thing,” Lexow said. “It’s just a very wonderful, caring community. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a connection to cancer. It’s something people can really get behind, but unfortunately the need exists. I’m thankful I have my job—I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but wish I didn’t have to have this job.”
The group holds major drives every six to 12 months, depending on the need. There is usually a collection day for hats in the fall, with mini-drives to assemble care kits throughout the year.
Those who like to sew instead of knitting or crocheting may make head scarves, and the group sometimes holds “sew-a-thons” during which participants sew as many hats and scarves as they can in a few hours.
Asked if the group might expand nationally, Lexow said: “Right now, we’re a very small organization, so we’re trying to keep things as simple as we can. It’s important to us to stay local so we can help the people right in our own community. There is a huge underserved population as far as access to healthcare right in our backyard. We need to take care of our neighbors before we decide to go national, although anything’s possible. We just want to help as many people as we can.”