From Disney theme park to Disney theme: Husband-wife stitch colorful surgery caps

David Wortman’s mom taught him to sew. Now he and his wife are using that talent to stitch together colorful surgery caps for young patients.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

When Stephanie Lang’s little girl Taylor, had ear tube surgery at IU Health Eagle Highlands she wore a colorful pink cap into the operating room. A couple that is grandparents and just happens to work in the operating room lovingly made the cap.

“I’ve always wanted to thank them. It’s the little things that make a difference when a child is going through surgery,” said Stephanie Lang, a nurse at IU Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.

What many patients and parents don’t know is there is a story behind those colorful caps – worn both by patients and operating room staff members at the IU Health Eagle Highlands Outpatient Center.

David Wortman, who has been a certified operating room technologist for 23 years, grew up in Orlando, Fla. His mom Jeanne Hunter worked as a seamstress for the Walt Disney World theme park and now sews together wedding dresses and prom gowns.

“The Disney costumes would come already assembled but if something needed adjusted or mended, that was mom’s job,” said David Wortman. “She also walked the steps of the rides and checked costumes to make sure they were up to standard.”

He learned to sew by watching his mom. When he began his career as a surgical technician, he asked if she could sew some colorful caps.

“She got a pattern from a store but they were basically shower caps. Most of the women wear the caps with bands across them to hold up their hair so we had to figure out the rest. It’s been an evolution to where we are today,” said Wortman. In addition to providing caps for pediatric patients and surgical staff members, he ships the caps all over the country – as far away as the United Kingdom.

On any given day, young patients come in for a variety of procedures – including ears, nose and throat – under the care of IU Health Dr. Scott Phillips. To help ease their anxiety, they are encouraged to choose a colorful surgical cap.

When David married Kathy four years ago they purchased a Brother sewing machine and she too learned to sew the caps. Together they have eight children ages 10-28 and two grandsons so they know a little bit about what patterns can make a child’s eyes light up.

Fabrics include bright hearts, ice cream cones, sports teams, Snoopy, Star Wars, Mario, Harry Potter and of course Disney Princesses, including the popular “Frozen” characters. Kathy Wortman, who works in sterile processing at IU Health Eagle Highlands, spends about three nights a week sewing the caps. There’s something a little personal about the process. When her daughter was nine-months-old, she was a patient at Riley Hospital – in the care of Dr. Laurie Ackerman. She underwent surgery for Craniosynostosis, a birth defect where there bones of the baby’s skull join prematurely.

“We were in the hospital for six days and we learned then that the small things added up to make us feel more comfortable. Patients can choose to go anywhere so if we can make a small difference then why wouldn’t we? Something as simple as a Star Wars character can help take away some of the fear. Even if the child doesn’t remember, the parent will,” said Kathy.

The surgery caps have also sparked interest among team members – many hoping to express personality and interests through their headgear. Nurse Renee Greer wears a head wrap with symbols for autism, in honor of her 17-year-old son. Surgical technologist Barbara Mahlman wears a Southwest print that matches a skirt, the Wortmans made for her granddaughter. Darryl Chapman wears a reversible cap – one side shows his love for IU sports and the other shows equal love for the University of Michigan. Some team members wear bacon-covered fabric; others wear cowboy patterns.

“They spark conversation – about sports teams, movies and specific interests and they’re not so clinical so it helps ease tension in the OR,” said David.

The machine-washable caps are also believed to be more effective in preventing airborne contamination in the operating room than the disposable caps. A study by Riley Hospital Surgeon Troy Markel, presented to the American College of Surgeons revealed that cloth skullcaps outperformed bouffant-style disposable hats in terms of significantly lower microbial shedding in a sterile field.

“I always swore I’d never sew because I didn’t think I had the patience for it,” said Kathy. “Now it’s all about the kids. We love kids and it would be my hope that every child has a cap that means something to them, something to show their personality.”