The tiny red knit hat fit snugly over the head of 3-day-old Madalyn Rose Weber as she slept inside the incubator.

Her parents, Allyson and Ethan Weber, stood watching their newborn daughter in the neonatal intensive care unit at Franciscan Health Indianapolis Wednesday morning. They were joined by hospital volunteer Ruth Buis, who crocheted the tiny cap for Madalyn.

They had never met Buis before. But for the Webers, the fact that she would make such a thoughtful gift for their daughter, even though she never met them, was moving.

“Our friends and family have really stepped up for us during this pregnancy, but to have a stranger step up for us too is really awesome,” Allyson Weber said.

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The hats were being passed out as part of Little Hats, Big Hearts, an American Heart Association campaign to raise awareness about heart disease and congenital heart defects in people of all ages. Volunteers like Bias knitted the caps over the past year, and throughout February, they pass the hats out to newborns in 50 hospitals across Indiana.

Though the hats were designed for babies, the items serve as an important symbol to motivate parents, grandparents, siblings and others to think about their own heart health.

“Cardiac disease can impact people at any age. Teaching parents the awareness and recognizing that it can hit anywhere, including heart defects at the time of birth, is so important,” said Lori Warner, administrative director of women’s health services at Franciscan Health Indianapolis. “I love to see their joy, and see them make that connection, that this is something connecting them to heart disease in their own family.”

The American Heart Association started Little Hats, Big Hearts four years ago. Because February is American Heart Month, with the added component of congenital heart defect awareness week Feb. 7 to 14, this was an opportunity to spotlight educational efforts by the association.

This year, more than 4,300 Indiana babies were scheduled to receive the handmade hats. Franciscan Health Indianapolis and Community Hospital South both took part in the campaign, and the red hats will be distributed throughout the month.

Since the program started, more than 12,000 hats have been passed out throughout the state, said Ruth Rench, board member for the American Heart Association in Indianapolis.

“We want to bring awareness to the fact that healthy lifestyles can prevent heart disease. We start young, so if we can start with young parents and children, bringing that into the forefront of their minds, they can prevent heart disease,” she said. “Heart disease is preventable, and the two main ways to do that is eating healthy and exercising.”

In order to make Little Hats, Big Hearts a reality, organizers recruit volunteers to knit the caps each year. Buis was a natural choice to help with the project.

The southside resident worked full-time as a registered nurse in the Franciscan Health Indianapolis neonatal intensive care unit from 1976 to 2004, then working as-needed at the hospital until 2015. She still volunteers every Tuesday, holding fussy babies, helping with feeding and re-stocking supply closets.

Buis has also been crocheting since she was 9 years old, so Little Hats, Big Hearts combined two of her passions in a meaningful way.

“When I first saw the publicity about this a couple of years ago, I said something and they didn’t have them for our babies. So I’ve been knitting and crocheting them since then,” she said. “Needless to say, I’ve made a lot of blankets and hats over the years and donated them as gifts. I know for our parents, that little touch can make the difference.”

To ensure that every child has a hat, Buis knits versions to fit everything from very small premature babies to those who have reached full term. Each hat takes about two or three hours, depending on the style that she creates.

She buys magazines with different patterns and instructions for inspiration, and using varying types of yarn, can vary the design and size.

On Wednesday afternoon, Buis carried shopping bags full of hats through the NICU at Franciscan Health, joined by nurses to help pass out the hats she had knitted.

One of the first hats passed out Wednesday went to Avett and Oryn Duffy, the 17-day-old twins of Matt and Elizabeth Duffy of Greenwood. Both are healthy and continuing to grow, with the hope they can go home soon.

To receive one of the caps was just another positive part of the care that they’d received so far, Elizabeth Duffy said.

“It’s really touching and compassionate for them to spend their time to bring awareness and promote heart-healthy living,” she said. “Not just for the babies, but for the entire family. You have to think about it.”

Down the hallway, Mariah Flynn of Columbus rocked her month-old daughter, Millie, as she received her hat.

“It’s nice to know that someone is thinking of our babies, spending time to knit hats,” Flynn said.

As the hats were handed out throughout the NICU, parents thanked the nurses and volunteers who stopped into their rooms. But for all of the gratitude that the recipients showed, it was Buis who felt the happiest passing out her work.

“They all say it’s really neat that someone thought of them and put time and effort into this. But it’s a rewarding thing for me,” Buis said. “I probably get as much out of it as they do.”

At a glance

Little Hats, Big Hearts

What: A program of the American Heart Association that distributes red knit hats handmade by volunteers to babies born in February.

Why: The campaign is intended to bring awareness about heart disease and congenital heart defects.

How many: More than 4,300 caps will be passed out at hospitals throughout Indiana this year.

Local participants: Franciscan Health Indianapolis and Community Hospital South are both taking part in the campaign.

Information or to sign up as a volunteer:

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.