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A Job of the Heart: Bringing Comfort to Radiation Therapy Patients

| Date Posted: 6/27/2017

 Darlene Donathan 006.JPG

Darlene Donathan, a radiation therapist at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital, is shown with two of the pillows she makes for the hospital’s radiation therapy patients.


PINEHURST – Darlene Donathan loves her job as a radiation therapist at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital. She also has a special place in her heart for her patients, so she was distressed when the company that supplied comfort/pressure pillows for breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy stopped providing them.


Donathan, who had always thought that the fabric the company used was scratchy and the filling too hard anyway, decided she could do better so she asked her supervisor, Director of Radiation Oncology Margie Thomas, if she could try her hand at making the pillows herself.


That was three or four years ago – neither Donathan nor Thomas is exactly sure – and she’s been making pillows continuously ever since, bringing in 55 in January and another 12 or so more recently.


“Patients really seem to appreciate it,” Donathan says. “I think that’s why I keep doing more and more.”


Radiation treatment can make the skin so sensitive that even casual contact is uncomfortable, so soft pillows – like those of Donathan’s creation – help relieve the contact pressure. Patients undergoing radiation therapy for various cancers – lung and other cancers as well as breast – also use the pillows to relieve the discomfort caused by seat belt contact.


Some patients even take their pillows to bed with them, with one happy patient volunteering that she got one of her best night’s sleep ever while clutching a Darlene Donathan pillow.


Donathan provides the constant supply of pillows largely at her own expense. When Thomas saw how popular the pillows had become, she told Donathan to turn in receipts for materials and supplies but she will go for months without seeing a single one.


“I haven’t gotten one in a while, as a matter of fact,” she says.


Donathan’s first pillows were similar in design to those of the supply company, but she branched out from the original rectangle to a heart shape after about a year. The hearts are especially popular with patients, because the slight dip at the top slips comfortably under the arm to “kind of cup the armpit,” Thomas says.


Always on the lookout for cheerful prints and colors, Donathan finds the soft fabrics she prefers at Walmart and Hobby Lobby. Most are pink or red, although an occasional green or yellow will slip into the mix.


You’ll never see lace, though. Lace is scratchy, and scratchy isn’t good.


Donathan likes to work “in batches,” first using patterns to cut the fabric into shapes and then sewing the pieces together before adding a stuffing that she’s found to be softer than the traditional Poly-Fil. She’s become so efficient at the work that she estimates that she could do an entire pillow – start to finish – in about 15 minutes.


A graduate of the radiography program at Sandhills Community College, Donathan came to Moore Regional in 2004 as a student X-ray technician and later continued her education in radiation therapy at Pitt Community College.


She did her radiation therapy clinical rotation at Moore Regional, where she is now part of a staff that she calls a “great team.” Many of those radiation therapy colleagues are also graduates of the Pitt program.


“We got to handpick the best,” Thomas says. “Eight of our 11 therapists studied there.”


When not working, Donathan enjoys a good game of Candy Crush and spoiling her four grandchildren, but she plans to continue making pillows for Moore Regional patients indefinitely.


“I have no plans to stop,” she says. “I actually have 15 cut out at home.”


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