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Ruth Crane's curly hair was one of her trademark features. So when chemotherapy for stage III breast cancer deprived her of her locks, she felt as if she was losing her identity, too. "My hair fell out and everything about my appearance changed," says Crane, a mother of three who is from Granger Township, Ohio. "The transition was really tough." But instead of dwelling on the toll that her treatments would take, she decided to focus on ways to help other women. Wearing jewelry allowed Crane to feel like her normal, girly self despite chemo's effects on her looks, so she thought giving earrings to other patients would make them feel better, too.
So Crane asked her friends, family members, and local groups to donate earrings. Then, at her final treatment session at the Cleveland Clinic in June 2008, she gathered the glittery gifts to hand out. "A nurse's assistant saw me struggling while I was hooked up to an IV stand and offered to pass the earrings around for me," she says. An hour later every pair was gone. That positive reaction, and the encouragement of her loved ones, inspired Crane to start Ears to You.
Her local newspaper ran a story after a reporter spotted an ad Crane placed in her church bulletin looking for donations. That feature led to a segment on an area news station, and earrings started to roll in: Church groups and breast-cancer survivors made donations. Several local Girl Scout troops contributed batches of handmade pairs. Crane also receives monetary donations, which she uses to buy earrings at a discount. She then mounts each pair on a special card.
Rene Barrat-Gordon, the social worker who helped Crane through her treatments, distributes 250 to 300 pairs of earrings to patients at the Cleveland Clinic each month. She gives them out as a distraction during a first session of chemotherapy or a celebration at the last. "The women are so touched, especially when I tell them that it's a gift from someone who's been through it," says Barrat-Gordon.
Since she started the program, Crane estimates she has given away more than 2,000 pairs. Ears to You currently operates at the Cleveland Clinic and at Akron General Hospital, but Crane hopes to expand the program to other cancer centers. Though she doesn't interact with each patient herself, she gets real satisfaction from the work. "The earrings make people feel good," says Crane. "And that's really all I could hope for."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2010.