Nurse has created 160,000 caps for Baptist Health's babies

Dawna McClain with a few of the thousands of hats she has made for newborns at Baptist Health, formerly Central Baptist Hospital.
Dawna McClain with a few of the thousands of hats she has made for newborns at Baptist Health, formerly Central Baptist Hospital. Herald-Leader

If you've had a baby at Baptist Health Lexington in recent decades, more than likely you've come across the handiwork of Dawna McClain.

McClain, a licensed practical nurse, has worked at the hospital for 39 years and four months. She's planning to retire within the next month.

But it's in another capacity that new parents might know her work: She's the baby hat maker. When parents have a baby at Baptist Health, formerly Central Baptist Hospital, most get a hand-decorated hat made by McClain. So far, she has made 160,000 of them.

Boys get a cap made of stockinette — a meshy off-white fabric sometimes used on the inside of broken-bone casts — with a blue pompon. Girls get a cap with a pink pompon.

But it's the holiday caps that set free the craftsman in McClain. Babies in the hospital during holidays get deluxe decorated caps for New Year's, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Saint Patrick's Day and Halloween.

She used to hand-paint the caps, but now she uses more fabric elements and foam stick-ons to craft her holiday looks.

"I don't have any children, so this is my way of giving back," McClain said. "I get to touch every baby somehow."

It takes McClain four hours to make a grocery bag full of the pompons that top the caps. It takes 24 hours of labor to make 70 holiday hats, two hours to make 80 regular hats once the pompons are made.

The pompons are hand-tied on the caps. The holiday decorations are added with non-toxic fabric glue and dried for 48 hours. They include Easter bunnies, Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas reindeer.

Babies get red, white and blue-themed caps for Memorial Day and July 4 or if one of their parents serves in the military.

McClain makes caps in regular baby size and also in preemie size for infants in the neonatal intensive care unit. She also once made a cap for an extra-large baby she dubbed "Bubba."

Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates the gesture.

A baby boy once got a University of Kentucky Big Blue-themed cap, which irked his father. The father had a University of Louisville cardinal red outfit ready nearby.

McClain has occasionally found her hand-fashioned caps in the garbage. But she also has seen that some parents keep and treasure the caps.

Recently she met the mother of three preschoolers — twins and a toddler — while getting her car serviced. The mother had had her babies at Baptist Health — the hospital delivers about 3,800 babies a year, according to hospital spokeswoman Ruth Ann Childers — and had received turkey hats for her twins, and a regular hat for the third child.

"I said, 'You're talking to the hat fairy,'" McClain said.

The mother kept the hats as mementos of her children's births.

After McClain retires, she plans to keep making the hats for a few more months until the new year, but eventually she'll retire from that as well. She and her husband Jim like to hike, and she likes to crochet and read.

More often, lately, nurses and other employees have asked for special cap designs — to commemorate the babies of fishermen, beach lovers, dog fans and even a volunteer fireman.

Tyra Moore, Baptist Health's mother-baby leader, said the hats will be missed.

"Patients love them," she said.

Unless someone else takes over for McClain, the hospital will start giving out simple hats without special holiday decor: pink and white stripes for girls, blue and white for boys.