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Katherine Repka started making heart-shaped pillows as a way to keep her mom company at chemotherapy treatments during COVID.

Photo by: Katherine Repka

In early 2020, Tanya Repka was busy coordinating a charity 5K in memory of a friend who lost their battle with cancer. With the hustle and bustle of planning, she was putting off scheduling her next mammogram appointment. Her last mammogram was perfect, so she assumed there wouldn’t be a problem with waiting until after the charity run.

Once she finally made it to Moffitt Cancer Center for the scan, she received a call from her doctor asking her to come back inside before she even made it to the car. Tanya knew that wasn’t a good sign. She was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer, stage 3B invasive lobular carcinoma, less than a month into the pandemic. That same week, her 88-year-old mother was diagnosed with stage 4 inoperable, non-small cell lung cancer.

Tanya read up on what to do next, and everything she read advised her to bring a companion with her to treatments. However, this was the spring of 2020 when visitors were limited due to pandemic precautions.

Tanya Repka recalls how lonely it was to go through chemo treatment during the pandemic. Her daughter’s pillows provided comfort for her and other patients.

Tanya Repka recalls how lonely it was to go through chemo treatment during the pandemic. Her daughter’s pillows provided comfort for her and other patients.

“Treatment was such a lonely experience,” Tanya recalled. “My husband, my kids, no one could come with me. Even in waiting rooms or during chemotherapy, we were spaced out to avoid close contact with others.”

Tanya’s 16-year-old daughter, Katherine, looked for ways to be with her mom during treatments without physically being present. Katherine found a mastectomy pillow online, a device designed to protect incision scars following surgery, and she put her own spin on it. She got out the sewing machine, downloaded the pattern and purchased fabric. The “Hug You Can Hold” was born!

“COVID was isolating for everyone, but seeing my mom go through something that would be hard sparked something in me to help in any way that I could,” Katherine said. The perfect size for comfort and travel, the heart-shaped pillow became the soothing companion that her mother took with her to treatment.

Katherine started making pillows for other patients who were diagnosed with cancer and going through treatment alone. The small gifts turned into a large-scale project.

“To see how impactful it was for them to receive a small gift made me realize that we could take this to a greater level,” Katherine shared. She successfully applied for a grant and used the funds to buy bulk fabric, stuffing and other materials to mass produce the pillows. Katherine took to social media asking for help from willing participants to sew some hugs.

Katherine received an overwhelming response from eager volunteers. Each respondent had been touched by cancer in their own way. This opportunity gave them purpose during the early, dark days of COVID-19. When Tanya returned to Moffitt for treatment, she would bring some “hugs” with her, and each time her fellow patients requested more.

“So many people are affected by cancer and other ailments,” Katherine said. “It was nice to see that something so little that I could do, we could do, our group of volunteers could do, made a lasting impact.”

The Hearts 4 Healing and Hope project has created more than 800 pillows for patients with cancer at Moffitt Cancer Center and Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. The sewing team also now uses scrap fabric to make port pillows for patients to wear under their seatbelts for comfort.

Katherine, now 18, is in her first year of college at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. She has passed the project off to her family and friends to see the mission through and jumps right back in when she is home on break.

“This isn’t just a project. This has really become who she is,” Tanya said proudly. “Katherine has become a servant leader who goes out and helps the community.”