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Making a Difference, One Stitch at a Time

Ioana Patringenaru | Jan. 31, 2011

Jeffree Itrich thumbs through thank you notes she received from quilters who donated blankets for Alzheimer's patients in a national study.
Related links:

Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study Quilt Project

For more information on how to donate, email or call (858) 677-1565.

Quilts are stacked up in piles, two feet high, on top of bookshelves and desks. More are stashed in open-door wooden cabinets, their colorful patterns spilling out of the frames. They come from as far as Hawaii, Alaska and Maine. They’re headed for more than 70 research centers throughout the nation, from California, to New York, to Florida, where they will be handed out to patients taking part in the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study, run in collaboration by UC San Diego and the National Institute on Aging.

Wherever they come from and wherever they’re headed, all the quilts first find a temporary home in the office of Jeffree Itrich, a communications specialist for the study who came up with the idea of donating quilts to patients in the study a year ago. The project is meaningful to Itrich in several ways: she is a quilter and lost her mother to severe dementia.

There are more quilts in the office next to Itrich’s, which had been vacant for a while. A new staff member is set to move in soon though. “I hope she likes quilts,” Itrich quipped.  So far, she’s collected more than 600 quilts and has shipped about 450.

It all started when she thought that it would be nice to thank the patients who take the time to participate in the study, which sometimes involves sitting in an MRI, receiving infusions and other time-consuming procedures. She thought quilts would be perfect comfort objects for the patients and their families. Another name for them is comforters, after all.

“It’s about giving back and trying to do the right thing,” Itrich said.

A close up of a quilt.

As a quilter, she knew those who shared her hobby were very generous. There are only so many quilts you can make for friends and family, she explained. But she didn’t anticipate the deluge of blankets that soon came pouring into her office.

She started out a with small group of only 50 participants. She contacted fellow quilters, blogs and websites. Within three months, she had 75 blankets. Then the AARP got wind of her efforts. The organization decided to feature the donation program in the September issue of its Bulletin, which reaches 25 million households.

“Your life will not be your own for a while,” the reporter who interviewed Itrich warned.

She was right. The day after the magazine was delivered to AARP members, the phone started ringing off the hook. Luckily, Itrich and fellow staff members had set up a special phone line and a special e-mail address. In all, about 1160 people inquired about the program. She heard from many staff members who told her that patients’ responses are very moving.

“The quilts are making a difference,” she said.

Itrich in her office in La Jolla, which she jokes resembles a quilt store.

One study coordinator told her the story of a woman who came with her daughters to one of the research centers to undergo an MRI. The coordinator realized the patient was going to get cold during the procedure. So, she went to get her the quilt she had planned on giving her later. The woman’s daughters looked like they were about the cry. They were astounded that a complete stranger would take the time to make a quilt for their mother.

Another study coordinator called to ask if Itrich had any outer space- or music-themed quilts for a patient who was a fan of both. Itrich didn’t, but she called a fellow quilter whose specialty is themed quilts. The woman said she’d see what she could do.  A little later, Itrich received two music and space quilts. She shipped them to the study coordinator. She then got a call.

“You have no idea how you made this man’s day,” the coordinator told Itrich.

Meanwhile, Itrich didn’t anticipate the emotional response from the quilters who gave their work. Some had lost a parent to Alzheimer’s. Others had lost friends. Some feared they were next. All said they felt compelled to do something to thank the patients who are helping finding a cure.

The project has received more than 600 quilts so far.

“Most people have been touched by Alzheimer’s but have been able to work through their grief,” Itrich said. “It’s been a catharsis for them.”

La Mesa resident Kimberley Graf lost her paternal grandfather to a form of Alzheimer’s. “It’s just so pervasive, and there are so many people that suffer from it,” she said. “You can’t help but want to help.” She gave Itrich about a half a dozen quilts. “She’s just very sincere and very caring,” Graf said.

Many quilters sent notes along with their work, some three to four pages long.

“Thank you for all you are doing to study Alzheimer’s,” one quilter wrote. “It is a terrible disease that causes great sadness and despair in families whose loved ones are suffering from it. With the knowledge of the researchers and the courage of the volunteers, hopefully one day there will be a cure.”

“Each stitch was made with love and prayers, and I hope that they will somehow be a comfort to the recipients,” another quilter wrote.

Letters like these motivate Itrich to keep going. The Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study works with about 2,000 to 3,000 patients.

“We’re going to keep sending out quilts,” she said.

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