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Penn Township seamstress happy to boost cancer patients’ spirits

Mary Pickels
gtrmcilhattan111014
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Joanne McIlhattan of Penn Township (right) poses for a portrait with her daughter-in-law Nancy McIlhattan, chief radiation therapist, in front of Joanne's handmade smocks at the Arnold Palmer Cancer Pavilion, on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014 in a conference room. Joanne has made over 140 smocks in an effort to cheer up cancer treatment patients.
gtrmcilhattan2111014
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
A handmade smock made by Joanne McIlhattan of Penn Township (right) hangs on a rack at the Arnold Palmer Cancer Pavilion on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014. McIlhattan has made over 140 smocks in an effort to cheer up cancer treatment patients under the care of her daughter-in-law Nancy McIlhattan, chief radiation therapist.
gtrmcilhattan3111014
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
A handmade smock made by Joanne McIlhattan of Penn Township (right) hangs on a rack at the Arnold Palmer Cancer Pavilion on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014. McIlhattan has made over 140 smocks in an effort to cheer up cancer treatment patients under the care of her daughter-in-law Nancy McIlhattan, chief radiation therapist.

Cancer patients arriving at Arnold Palmer Pavilion take a pleasantly surprising detour before being led to treatment.

“We say, ‘Let’s go shopping first,’ ” said Nancy McIlhattan, chief radiation therapist at the UPMC cancer treatment center in Unity.

The women can choose a colorful robe from a rack McIlhattan’s mother-in-law, Joanne McIlhattan, 82, of Penn Township, keeps stocked. Joanne McIlhattan made many of the smocks.

“They appreciate it. It’s kind of a conversation piece. It’s a way for patients to connect,” Nancy McIlhattan said.

Joanne McIlhattan, a long-time seamstress, has contributed more than 140 robes to the “conversation.”

“I kind of talked her into it,” Nancy McIlhattan said.

“Nancy’s work is so important. I always respected her devotion to her work,” Joanne McIlhattan said.

Joanne McIlhattan is active with Home Economists in Homemaking, Westmoreland Chapter. Collectively, the group has provided more than 200 robes for patients, replacing thin hospital gowns.

“One lady made 30,” she said.

Smock patterns include holiday and Steelers themes.

McIlhattan’s personal touch is a butterfly pocket she adds to each robe.

“I went to a butterfly release. They were so colorful. So I made a pattern,” she said.

“I started sewing at age 10. I loved my mother’s sewing machine,” McIlhattan said.

The 1951 Westmoreland Fair 4-H Queen sewed her own gown for the competition.

“I went to (then Penn State College) with almost an entire (handmade) wardrobe,” she said.

Over the years, McIlhattan volunteered with the Girl Scouts of America and with the 4-H program.

“I really enjoyed backpacking and camping,” she said.

A former home economics substitute teacher, McIlhattan recalled trying to teach boys how to make T-shirts.

“They would challenge me by turning all the (sewing machine) screws out. I got smart and started carrying my own screwdriver,” she said.

Daughter Kathy Kostrick did not inherit her mother’s sewing skills, she said, laughing.

“We used to make shirts in school. She would tear mine apart and sew it back together,” she said.

The smock program began in 2000, when a cancer patient and pavilion employee suggested patterning robes after lab jackets.

“We had a lady in her 90s who had made 500 robes herself, and then there was a gap before Joanne took on the project,” Nancy McIlhattan said.

McIlhattan got involved in 2012, redesigning a Simplicity pattern to her own satisfaction.

“I’ve designed it over and over. I’m an expert at it now. I have two (machines) going at all times. I set one on zigzag and one on straight sewing and go back and forth. I just roll around on my computer chair,” McIlhattan said.

She called the volunteers from the Latrobe Presbyterian Church the program’s “backbone” but noted the number of seamstresses has dwindled.

Each smock carries a label indicating it is part of Nancy G. Hoffman Complementary Health Services, a Latrobe Area Hospital Aid Society outreach honoring the memory of a cancer victim.

Joanne McIlhattan receives regular donations of fabric, some of which she distributes to other volunteers.

“I’ve used up pretty much all of my fabric scraps. But it’s gone to good use,” she said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or [email protected].

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