Sharing the Warmth with Patients: Betty and the Bear

By on 03/13/2017

It started with what seemed like such a small thing.

Kathy Rich is leisure services coordinator and a recreational therapy aide at MossRehab’s main campus in Elkins Park.

A few years ago, at Christmas time, Rich was making the rounds of patient rooms at MossRehab main campus at Elkins Park, delivering stuffed bears that had been given to her by an acquaintance who entertained as a clown, a frequent visitor to the facility. She asked her friend if he had any extra bears so she could give them out at Willowcrest, an Einstein Healthcare Network inpatient skilled nursing care and rehabilitation facility on the grounds of Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia.

Later, Rich—accompanied by her mother, Betty—visited Willowcrest. Her mother has dementia but at the time she was verbal, with occasional moments of lucidity. Together they entered the room of Janet Bonekemper, a liver transplant patient, with Betty clutching one of the stuffed bears.

“Janet looked at her and said, ‘Oh, what a beautiful bear,’” Rich recalls. “My mom said, ‘Yes, this bear is yours.’ Janet said, ‘I don’t know, Betty, the way you’re clutching that bear, I think the bear belongs to you.’ My mom said, ‘No, this bear told me that you need him.’” Bonekemper looked to Rich, who whispered, “Please take the bear. I know my mother won’t leave here until you take it.”

That bear couldn’t have come at a better time, recalls Bonekemper. She had just been transferred from Einstein’s transplant unit and was feeling low when Rich and her mother dropped by. “It was nice having the company, Bonekemper says. “Kathy is so warm and outgoing, and it was uplifting to see someone like that. I was touched that she brought her mother.”

When Janet took the bear in her arms, she knew it was the right thing to do. She recalls, “As soon as I embraced that bear, I felt a warm, tingling sensation throughout my body. I knew there was some kind of connection. I felt so much better afterward having that bear with me. It was just a comforting feeling that God was with me. It was the same feeling I had experienced at church with the laying on of hands when I was ordained into lay ministry many years before. I was overwhelmed.”

Rich thought that was the last she would hear of that particular bear.

The next night, Rich and her mother returned. Bonekemper couldn’t wait to ask Rich about her mother’s “sixth sense.” Bonekemper asked, “How did she know? How did she know I needed that bear?” Janet learned from Rich that her mother had always been a very spiritual person. Bonekemper being a person of deep faith, she knew at that moment that the stuffed bear “was a very special gift.”

A few months ago, Janet wrote a little story about the encounter, which she presented to the Hepatology and Transplant department, which was later shared with Rich, who had no idea her mother’s gift had made such a lasting impression. “When I read it, I just cried,” Rich said. “For me, it was God using my mom, and the fact that he could still use my mom, with all her challenges … she didn’t know who she was or I was some days. Yet, he found the perfect way to use her to help somebody else, and that just means so much to me. That’s just an amazing, amazing gift.”

At that moment, Rich knew she had to do something to honor her mother’s gift. She just wasn’t sure what.

Not long after that, while walking her dog, she ran into a woman who used a room at a local church to do quilt projects. They got to talking about Betty’s teddy bear story, and it turned out the woman had a box of seven handmade bears, which she gave to Rich. At that point Rich wasn’t sure what she was going to do with them, but then a thought occurred to her.

“I called Willow Terrace (a nursing facility operated by Einstein Healthcare Network),” says Rich, “and I asked them, ‘Do you have a dementia floor?’ They said yes, and I said, ‘Would it be OK if I came and gave out these bears?”

Once again the answer was yes, but seven bears wasn’t enough. She asked the woman who gave them to her if she could round up any more, and Rich wound up with dozens more.

“I took them to Willow Terrace and met with one of the staff people there, and we distributed 50 bears. That was in November. So that’s how it started.”

Since then, 40 more stuffed bears have been donated and another donor is sewing bears, but for Rich this is just the beginning of what she hopes will be a continuing program called, in honor of her mother, “Betty and the Bear.” She plans fund-raisers and bake sales to raise money for more bears, and she’s hoping more bears will be donated to the cause.

The first recipients will be Einstein transplant patients, and she hopes to keep giving to dementia patients.

Not surprisingly, dementia patients are close to Rich’s heart. Her mother, now 92, has significant dementia and is unaware of the program that started with an act of her own generosity.

“She has been blessed with a great life, but it’s been hard,” says Rich. “This is an amazing bright spot, an amazing positive for me to be any part of this. And to think my mom can continue to give … that just lights me up. It’s just wonderful. I am just really, really happy about that.”




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