April 12, 2015

Tradition Merges with Modern Medicine to Save Lives.


I’m a knitter.

Yes, I have a rocking chair. But no, I don’t spend my time in it, knitting socks.

Knitting, while gaining “hip” status, is in many ways still perceived as a “granny occupation” done by sweet little old ladies churning out afghans and hats that nobody wants.

Knitting is old, but rather a mystery. Actually, the term “to knit” wasn’t added to the English language till about 1400-ish. There are some odd fragments of knitting in some museums—most of the natural materials (wool, silk, cotton) decayed—what’s left is a bit here and a bit there that have just barely survived the ages. We also know that some historians date it as a “modern” invention because of fragments of weaving and spinning which have been around much longer.

So we know it’s been around a while, and we know that in history, knitting guilds were actually populated by men—the first guild having been formed in Paris in 1527.

And we also know, through study, that children as young as five knitted to supplement the family income. When someone is watching me KIP (Knit In Public), they often say, “Oh, I could never do that. You must be so smart.”

Well, I like to think that I am actually smart, but my response is usually, “You know, I learned to knit when I was somewhere around seven years old. If a seven-year-old can do it, surely an adult can!”

But there’s a new twist to this old art. Women from an indigenous tribe in Bolivia are using their skills to make plugs. These plugs are used in modern, minimally-invasive surgical procedures to help with heart defects.

Reported recently by the BBC, the video accompanying the story shows women of the Aymara tribe using knitting techniques to make a device called Nit Occlud, designed by cardiologist Franz Freudenthal. While most devices of this kind are made in manufacturing plants, Dr. Fruedenthal’s plugs are so small and intricate that it would be a technical nightmare to reproduce.

He called on Bolivia’s traditional craft knitters to help—and make them by hand.

The knitters use normal knitting needles and a single strand of a super-elastic metal called nitinol, a nickel-titanium alloy with memory. The plug looks like a top hat and can be made in a variety of sizes. It folds up inside a very small catheter, which is then threaded through the groin, placed, and opened up when it reaches the proper location. When it opens, it acts somewhat like an umbrella to plug the hole that’s causing the problem. The good thing is this device can stay in place without ever needing to be changed.

Watching the attached video is an amazing thing. Imagine a culture that is resistant to treatment; in many indigenous communities in Bolivia, the idea of manipulating a heart is considered an act of desecration to the human soul. By not having to do open-heart surgery to place a device, the doctors can repair the hearts of many patients who would otherwise refuse the treatment.

We often think of the advances of modern medicine. We send doctors to the most remote regions to bring cutting-edge treatment to those who would otherwise not have access to such things.

It took a doctor’s innovation and imagination to reach out to the local women, and their own skills with knitting needles, to bring healing to so many patients.

As knitters, we often say that our art is priceless. You can’t even think of charging someone—and frankly, most of us don’t. Imagine, if you will: the average pair of women’s socks has over 100,000 stitches in it. There’s no price we can set that really counts the number of hours, sometimes the number of prayers, and always the amount of love that we put into our projects.

These women in Bolivia are not only knitting with heart. They’re knitting for hearts.






Author: Pat Perrier

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: mararie/Flickr


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