Donna Smith emerges from her car with an armful of pillows, batting and a cell phone. Pausing as she dials the phone to announce our arrival, Ms. Smith says, “Before I introduce you two, I would like to tell you a little about my remarkable friend. She is a breast cancer survivor and she is presently battling lung cancer. Through her pillow therapy ministry, Clairann takes pillows to various hospitals and hospices to be given to cancer or heart patients. I would like for the people of Frisco to know her story and all about the wonderful outreach program she coordinates out of compassion for other cancer survivors.”
Clairann Dula welcomed me into her home, not as a new acquaintance, but as an old friend. Generous with hugs and smiles, Ms. Dula’s effervescent personality immediately shone through. Her eyes were bright with strength and determination. She is a warrior on a mission for hope and finding a cure, not only for herself, but also for others. Only the slightest flicker in those eyes revealed the pain she endures as she once again faces a battle with cancer.
Ms. Dula, a retired teacher, mother of four and grandmother of 16, says the Pillows for Patients Ministry started quite accidentally. “I volunteered to work at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas when I was going through breast cancer in 2001. I mentioned to my doctor that I was going to retire and he asked me to set up a cancer resource center. Dr. Bourland had a room stacked with boxes containing thousands of books and nobody to do anything with them. I set up this resource center, and that is where I came across the patterns for pillows that are put out by the American Cancer Society.”
As an avid sewer, Ms. Dula jumped at the opportunity to start making pillows. She says, “I make two pillow shapes. The heart shape helps people with incisions under their arms to be more comfortable when sitting and sleeping. The rectangular pillow helps protect chest incisions while wearing a seat belt. I would go visit pre- and post-surgery patients, and that is where I started to distribute the pillows. Before I knew it, we were out of pillows! Time rocked along and I started volunteering at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Plano. I was asked to set up a resource center there, too. Of course, it involved pillows! I began the Pillows for Patients Ministry with the hope that it would help others facing their own life threatening illnesses to remain hopeful and provide them with a source of comfort.”
Ms. Dula shares, “It has been a really rewarding Christian ministry. I never dreamed it would turn into something this big! I have sent patterns for the pillows with detailed instructions to churches in 13 other states that have asked me to help them set up a pillow ministry to serve patients in their communities. I have received hundreds of letters from people all over the country thanking me for the pillows and the comfort they bring. I just treasure those notes!”
As the ministry has grown, so has the need for volunteers. Ms. Smith notes, “An amazing group of ladies at First United Methodist Church of Frisco meets quarterly to help Ms. Dula make approximately 300-400 pillows. The volunteers purchase bright, cheerful fabric, Poly-Fil®, thread, bags and ribbon with their own money. There are about eight to 12 of us who gather to stuff the pillows that Ms. Dula has cut out and sewn. It is more than just making pillows. It is also about friendship and sharing our stories. It is really wonderful!”
Ms. Smith shares, “Clairann takes great pains and pride to make sure every pillow is presented in a bag tied with a big ribbon because she wants patients to know it is a gift. She is also very conscious of male patients and makes sure we have pillows that are in masculine fabrics. Men with ports or pacemakers or who have had other surgeries often use them.”
Ms. Dula adds, “The first thing a patient wants to know is who the pillow came from. We put a note in each bag with every pillow that says ‘this pillow was made by the women of First United Methodist Church of Frisco. We hope you will use this pillow with God’s blessings and in good health.’ These pillows are available to anyone that needs one. There is no cost involved. We do this out of sheer love.”
Ms. Smith, a breast cancer survivor herself, met Ms. Dula when she moved from Illinois to Frisco in 2006 to be closer to her family. Ms. Smith shares, “I believe God had me move to Texas be near family, but also to meet Clairann. I had breast cancer for the first time in 1995 and again in 2010 and 2011. I never dreamed after helping Clairann make these pillows for all these years that one day she would be packaging up pillows for me! They give so much comfort and security when you are going through recovery. Clairann is a remarkable friend. I have been really lucky and I am blessed to have received the love and generosity of her pillow ministry. She is in a big battle right now, but I know she is going to win!”
Illness and pain change us, test us and teach us. Faith, family, friends and a sense of humor help us face the things in our lives that are difficult. A resilient fighter, Ms. Dula beat breast cancer in 2001, melanoma in 2008 and is now battling lung cancer. “I guess I just cannot get enough cancer,” Ms. Dula says with a small laugh. All joking aside, she acknowledges, “I have no choice but to fight it and to help find a cure. I am blessed with a great medical team. I know God is my co-pilot, guiding me through this journey.”
Ms. Smith says, “Although she is very modest about her role as coordinator of the Pillows for Patients Ministry, Clairann has been the guiding force behind this program. Many thousands of patients have been touched and helped as a result of her vision and commitment to this ministry. We are blessed to have her.”
Ms. Dula dismisses her friend’s praise with a shrug and a smile. “I am a cancer survivor. I know and understand where people are on their journey. This is God’s plan for me. Through His guidance, I ended up in this wonderful ministry. This is where, in a small way, I can help cancer patients find hope and comfort on their journey.”
When asked about her vision for the future of the Pillows for Patients Ministry, Ms. Dula says, “I believe it is going to continue to grow because the demand is going to continue to grow. People do not realize how much cancer is out there for men, women and children of all ages. Until we find a cure, the Pillows for Patients Ministry will be needed.”
For more information about the Pillows for Patients Ministry, email Ms. Dula at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 214-387-0030.