Octopuses for Israel

Bonnie is a fiber artist. Walk into our family room almost anytime during the day, and you’re likely to see her knitting or crocheting — no, I don’t know a knit from a crochet — blankets, scarves, hats, even a chuppah (a wedding canopy).  And octopuses.

Yes, for the past three years she has been creating cloth versions of that sea creature to help premature babies cope with their new, scary environments.

Daughter number one Lauren had found an article about crocheted octopuses on the Internet. A hospital volunteer in Denmark had originated the idea, and it was being used in preemie ICUs in that country and in the British Isles.

In utero, Bonnie, a former nurse, explains, the fetus often grasps the umbilical cord, When a child is born prematurely, he or she is hooked up to an IV and other machines, there is light and noise, all of which agitate the tiny person. The tentacles of the octopus mimic the umbilical cord. So, when the premies, who are born with a grasp reflex, grab the cloth tentacle, it reminds the babies of what they felt in the womb and apparently helps calm them.

Bonnie thinks the sight of the colorful, doll-like octopus with a smile on its face may also help relax the distraught mothers of the premature babies.

After she downloaded the pattern for creating the ocean-going animal, she checked with nurses at some local hospital premie wards but her offer of free cloth animals was rejected.

Not to worry, said Lauren, who is a birthing coach (dula) in Israel. She works and volunteers in hospitals in the Jewish state and would ask nurses in premie wards if they were interested.

The head nurse in the department at Wolfson Hospital in Holon was intrigued, so much so that she battled administrators at the hospital until they agreed to her request.

There is reason to be cautious. Some babies may be allergic to cotton or wool. For that reason, Bonnie uses only acrylic fiber, and the stuffing for the cloth animals is also a polymer. Both are non-allergenic. Before she sends them to Israel by mail or takes them during our yearly trips, Bonnie puts them in our washer and dryer. 

So far, she has made dozens of cloth octopuses — there’s always a big demand for the babies get to take their own octopus home with them.

Two years ago, Bonnie made extra octopuses for our visit to the Save A Child’s Heart residence not far from the hospital in Holon. This wonderful nonprofit, with a connection to my synagogue Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim in Silver Spring, brings children with heart defects from developing countries for operations in the Jewish state. They stay in the organization’s house while waiting for surgery. The trip to Israel, their stay at the home and the surgery is free for the children and their accompanying mother.

The little kids at the home and their moms seemed very happy with the octopuses they received.

Photos: Octopuses rest on our couch in anticipation of their long trip to Israel.

The children at the Save A Child’s Heart residence and their mothers smile for the camera. Lauren is sitting on the floor in the center.

About the Author
Aaron Leibel was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1942, eventually receiving a Ph.D. in political science. In Israel, he lived in Jerusalem and Kibbutz Kfar Giladi. He worked at the Ministry of Health, as an apple farmer, and as a hotel administrator before becoming a journalist. Aaron was a senior writer for Newsview magazine and editor-writer for The Jerusalem Post, and then, after returning to America, he was arts/copy editor and reporter for the Washington Jewish Week newspaper until his retirement in 2014. He continues to write reviews and articles for Washington Jewish Week and reviews for The Jerusalem Post. His memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant's Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, is slated to be published by Chickadee Prince Books early in 2021. It is available for preorder in paperback.
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