Mary Stevens holds a quilt she made for a child being treated at the Aflac Cancer Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. Stevens, shown at her Canton home, began making quilts for other children at Scottish Rite when her son Michael Stevens was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 4 years old in 1996. It’s estimated she has made as many as 1,000 of the colorful, comforting handmade blankets. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp
Photo: Branden Camp

Cancer patient’s mom turned to quilt-making to cope, then to share hope

For two decades, Mary Stevens has deployed a singularly effective weapon against childhood cancer:

A needle and thread.

In September 1996, Stevens and her husband, Terry, were sucker-punched by the news that their 4-year-old son, Michael, had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He started treatment at Scottish Rite Hospital (now the Aflac Cancer Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite). And sometime during the worrisome and exhausting blur of days and weeks that followed, his mother started making a quilt.

When it was finally done, she gave it to a nurse to give to another patient she’d overheard admiring it — a little girl around Michael’s age.

And then Stevens turned right around and made another quilt, for another child with cancer whom she’d never met. And then another.

She hasn’t stopped since.

Not when Michael’s treatment took four years and she started working in the cafeteria at Nicholson Elementary School in Marietta so she could be nearby if he needed help with his chemotherapy port or other medical issues. Or when he relapsed at age 14, and the cycle of worry and long drives for treatment at Scottish Rite started up all over again. Or when each quilt took her about 20 hours and 4 yards of material to make and she started spending Super Bowl Sunday at a local quilting store’s annual fabric sale to stock up.

Not even now, when probably no one would fault Stevens if she decided to hang up her thimble for a while and take a well-deserved victory lap.

This fall, Michael Stevens, who’s now 24 and healthy, started medical school at Mercer University. He wants to become a pediatric oncologist and help children like so many dedicated professionals helped him. At the same time, his mother marked 20 years of making quilts for young cancer patients — as many as 1,000 of the colorful, comforting handmade blankets by now, CHOA staff estimates — in much the same way she’s always approached her self-selected mission:

Quietly. But relentlessly.

“It would be great if there was a cure and I didn’t have to do this anymore,” Stevens, 54, said one day in the workroom of her Canton home, where bolts of colorful material filled rows of shelves and plastic bins, and a pile of cut-out fabric hearts waited to be sewed onto partially finished quilts. “But cancer doesn’t always do what you want it to.”

At first, Stevens was just trying to keep herself busy during Michael’s chemotherapy sessions. Soon, though, she came to see that having a soft, warm quilt to call their own could help ease young patients’ anxiety as well.

Just ask her son.

“I’ve been in their shoes, I know what they’re going through,” Michael Stevens recalled recently, fresh from a med school lecture on antibiotics. “You spend most of your time alone in your little room and it’s cold, so infections can’t grow. It’s nice to have something to keep you warm. It’s even nicer to know other people are there for you, even if you don’t know who they are.”

What happened just happened, said Mary Nolan, who’s been a CHOA nurse for 36 years and helped care for Michael.

“I can’t remember when I realized, ‘Oh, wow, she’s going to do this for everybody,’” Nolan said.

Or, as many as she could possibly get to, sewing at home, in the hospital and during breaks from her job (Stevens, who later became a kindergarten parapro, finally left Nicholson this fall). Before Scottish Rite began reimbursing her for the cost of materials about seven years ago, pretty much her entire paycheck went toward making upward of 60 quilts some years.

“That’s a lot of blankets,” said Pat Cornwell, a social worker at the Aflac Cancer Center at CHOA for the past 17 years. “But every time she brings them to us, she’s still so joyful about it.”

The process has always worked the same way: Every few months, Nolan and Cornwell send Stevens a list with the first names and ages of newly diagnosed young patients. Sometimes they’re able to include snippets of info — “She loves Barbies,” “He wants to be a superhero” — that might help with the design; usually, though, Stevens just goes with her instincts. Each quilt gets at least one heart and has the child’s name sewn across the middle in big, cheerful letters; it’s a way, Stevens says, to make them feel special and more like themselves in what can be a scary and impersonal medical setting.

By late October this year, she’d already completed 34 quilts, when a new list arrived containing 15 additional names. Because of patient privacy laws, Stevens doesn’t ever meet the children or their parents, or know the details of their diagnoses; instead, when she finishes a handful of quilts, she drops them off at CHOA, where the staff presents them to people who need all sorts of comfort.

“She didn’t care if they ever knew her name. That’s not Mary,” Nolan emphasized. “We just say, ‘It’s’s been made for your child by the mother of one of our patients who’s now grown up and doing his own thing.’ In a way, it’s another gift, because it brings hope to the family that there’s this other kid who made it through.”

And until the time when every kid can “make it through,” Stevens will keep on making quilts.

“I’ve said I would always do this,” Stevens said softly, “until there’s a cure and I’m not needed anymore.”

RELATED: Atlanta nurse now works where she was treated for cancer as child

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