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Dynamic Duo’s Pillows Soften Post-Transplant Road

Transplant coordinator, mom provide more than 660 kidney- and pancreas-shaped cushions since 2016

kidney and pancreas pillows

Alice Schnell is a retired seamstress, but what she’s been sewing for Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) transplant patients and living donors for the past five years goes beyond ordinary material and thread.

At 84, she works with her daughter, LVHN clinical post-transplant coordinator Sue Eckhart, to provide special kidney- and pancreas-shaped pillows to transplant patients to use after surgery. Eckhart hatched the idea, got buy-in from the transplant program, and enlisted Schnell’s help.

The transplant program pays for pillow supplies. Eckhart designed the pillows and buys what’s needed and Schnell provides the sewing time and talent, free of charge.

“I thought, gee that’s an honor,” Schnell says of her reaction when Eckhart asked her to help start the special sewing mission. “It was something I wanted to do.”

How it all started

kidney and pancreas pillows
Kidney and pancreas-shaped pillows

Eckhart has been a nurse with LVHN for 36 years, the first 26 as a medical-surgical nurse. After surgery, nurses typically give a patient a folded blanket, taped so it stays folded, to patients to hold over their incision to support it when they need to move, take deep breaths or cough. The technique is called splinting.

“Over the years I knew that when people had open heart surgery, they got a heart pillow,” Eckhart says. “When my mom had lung cancer surgery years ago, she got a teddy bear.” When Eckhart joined the transplant program 10 years ago, she thought – why not a kidney pillow? That was followed, of course, by the pancreas pillow. Patients who get both a kidney and pancreas transplant get two pillows.

In addition to comfort, the pillows can act as a teaching tool. The kidney pillow comes with fabric attachments representing a vein, artery and ureter.

Grateful patients

Eckhart says some patients return for follow-up visits with their pillows in hand. “They are really thankful for them,” she says. “Some tell me to thank my mom. There really is a personal connection there.” Some of the transplant patients have even had transplant doctors and nurses sign their pillows.

The Eckhart-Schnell pillow team aims to keep producing pillows for the foreseeable future. It’s a transplant program tradition that brings comfort and a smile.

“This gesture really exemplifies the compassion of the special people who make our transplant program such a success,” says Michael Moritz, MD, LVPG Transplant Surgery, who leads LVHN’s transplant team. “Sue and Alice’s pillows may be small gestures to some, but they leave a big impression.”

“It gives me a good feeling to know that maybe these pillows will make somebody feel a little better,” says Schnell.

Find out more about LVHN’s transplant program at

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