Advances in the medical field have yielded an endless number of prosthetic devices designed to enable users to simulate extension and range of motion as closely to the natural limb as possible.
A specially crafted prosthetic leg for golfing replicates the torsion control one needs for proper swing and followthrough. A transfemoral running limb has helped amputee runner Sarah Reinersten set world records in nearly every distance from 100 meters to the Ironman. Truly, these innovations have brought today’s veterans light years ahead of the last few decades of prosthetic technology.
So why, then, is adaptive clothing still so outdated and, largely, unavailable? A quick Internet search reveals a distinct lack of outfitters catering to the needs of amputees and the convalescing, especially those younger veterans looking to retain a sense of their own personal style in a world of medical devices and hospital gowns.
The market, while small, exists, and it took a special group to meet the need.
Sew Much Comfort (SMC), a non-profit organization energized by the laboring fingers of volunteer seamstresses, creates or adapts clothing to meet the unique needs of wounded service members and veterans in hospitals at home and overseas.
SMC president Michele Cuppy explained it all began when her retired co-founder, Ginger, paid a visit to Walter Reed. She had seen an injured service member receive his Purple Heart in a hospital gown, unable to wear regular clothing because of the fixator on his leg.
“Ginger came to my house and asked me to sew a pair of adapted fixator pants which she brought to the service member,” said Cuppy. “He was so grateful because he had not been able to wear any clothing for the past six months that he began to cry. His heartwarming reaction of tears, gratitude and excitement motivated us to make more fixator pants.”
The hope then for a small group of seamstresses in Minnesota was to make 100 pairs of fixator pants and call it quits. But requests began pouring in, and after being featured in Sew News Magazine in 2005, another 500 seamstresses reached out to Cuppy to volunteer their services.
Today, SMC has grown to include 950 seamstresses across the United States and Germany who have produced 115,000 articles of adaptive clothing, totaling more than 460,000 volunteer hours. And with the help of a DAV Charitable Service Trust grant of $5,000, the volunteer seamstresses will be able to Not surprisingly, there have been no studies conducted to gauge the effect of a specially adapted pair of pants on an injured veteran’s recovery, but the program’s feedback is enough to suggest these comforts have a fairly significant emotional impact.
“There are no words to describe how very much your Velcro pants, underwear and shirts helped my husband in the hospital,” said one veteran’s spouse. “Being able to put ‘real’ clothes on was the biggest step towards normalcy for him.”
SMC’s website is rife with words of gratitude for the unique service they provide. “Because I received your package a few weeks ago, I can now for the first time since my injuries attend our family’s Christmas gatherings in ‘normal-looking clothing,’” wrote a veteran. “I hope that others who have received your wonderful clothing items take a few minutes to share with you just how much of a positive difference you have made in their own recovery stories.”
“It’s terrific to see so many volunteers come forward and give their time and labor to support veterans,” said Voluntary Services Director Ron Minter. “Having a favorite shirt or pair of pants seems like such a small thing to most of us, but it can really help bring some normalcy back to the life of a seriously injured veteran.”
The majority of SMCs clothing goes directly to military and veterans medical facilities for patients to use as needed, but the volunteers also cater to special requests. Cuppy said the most unusual requests have been for wetsuits, dress uniforms, and even wedding attire, but mostly the patients just want something familiar and comfortable to wear.
“We were thrilled with everything in our order, but when we pulled out the LSU shirt and shorts you should have seen his face!” wrote one veteran’s mother. “Now we can represent our beloved LSU and feel like he’s at home when he wears the clothes.”
Cuppy said she is moved by the way SMC’s work touches lives and wishes only that the organization could do more.
“What is really hard to hear is when the wounded say, ‘I wish I knew about your clothes because I could have really used them.’ Some said they opened their own clothes and either taped or pinned the sides,” said Cuppy. “Prior to our existence, no one was making adapted clothing for this purpose.”
Based on the personal testimonies, one can see these custom and adapted garments are a blend of physical and emotional comfort in the wake of devastating and traumatic loss.
“Without your fine clothes I don’t think I would have been able to be dressed without being in terrible agony, so I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all that you and the volunteers who help you do,” wrote one veteran. He then went on to update the volunteers on his condition, saying, “By the way I came through fine. My pelvis was fixed, my legs healed and I lost my foot. Don’t worry about the foot, though, it was my left one which I never liked anyway.”
SMC is a labor of love in its truest sense, but also one of gratitude and tribute. It is delightfully reminiscent of a time when a nation at war pooled its collective time, energy and resources to provide for the needs of those wounded in service.
“Sew Much Comfort provides so many of our volunteers with a great sense of purpose in the work they are doing that they want to keep sewing,” said Cuppy. “The ability to share their talent of sewing and be able to say ‘thank you’ to all those serving in the military motivates them to keep going. Many have pledged to keep sewing until all our troops come home.”