Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Sally Fleege creates special shirts for kids undergoing chemotherapy
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and that is certainly true for one Waukesha grandmother. Sally Fleege created a special shirt for her grandson, Drew, when he went through chemotherapy. Since then, she’s made them for hundreds of other kids.
The idea started with her daughter, Drew’s mom, Jennifer Korycanek.
“There's the Mickey shirt,” Korycanek said with a laugh, flipping through a huge scrapbook.
The scrapbook is filled with memories from Drew’s cancer journey. At the start of the book, he was a curly-haired toddler, who loved Mickey Mouse.
“And then this is that phase where that medicine made him lose his hair,” Korycanek said, pointing to a photo.
Before his second birthday, Drew was diagnosed with cancer.
“His diagnosis is Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. ALL,” she said.
Drew went through two and a half years of treatment.,
“That's him getting chemo, sleeping,” Korycanek said, pointing out another photo.
Korycanek said they couldn’t have done it without support.
“We could not have gone through this without our family and friends,” she said. “My parents moved to be near us to help us out. I found out I was pregnant the week Drew was diagnosed, with our third child.”
Her mom, Sally Fleege, got in the car and drove to be there right away.
“It was very scary,” Fleege said. “Very hectic. I got the phone call at work.”
Drew started treatment for his cancer immediately. As part of it, he had a port implanted in his chest. It made it easier for him to get his chemo, and other treatment, but Korycanek said finding something to wear could be a challenge.
“And just having something that they would maybe feel a little more comfortable with that was more kid friendly than a hospital gown, and that's how it started,” she said.
That dilemma led to an idea.
“Nana's Tubie Tees,” Fleege said. “And the tubie comes from the tubes that nurses use to insert into their ports.”
Fleege makes Nana’s Tubie Tees in her Waukesha sewing room. The design took some trial and error to get right.
“We worked on it. The first shirt I did, I think I put in Velcro, but that was scratchy,” Fleege said. “The next one I put a zipper in, and that was uncomfortable.”
Now she’s got a system down, cutting and stitching, so the shirt opens up at the top. Out in the dining room, husband Rick Fleege, finishes them. They make accessing a port a snap.
“They don't have to have their shirts up at their necks, with the tubes and stuff hanging down. So, it just gives them some more flexibility, some more personalization,” Fleege said.
There are all kinds of designs. Princesses, dinosaurs, and Baby Yoda, to name a few.
“We try to tell the kids that they're the superheroes,” Fleege said. “That they're the ones going through all this, and they're amazing.”
Nana’s Tubie Tees has donated nearly 400 shirts. Many of them have gone to the MACC Fund Center at Children’s Hospital.
“I'm very proud of my mom and my dad and all their time and talents and being able to donate that, because if we get a request, we are filling it,” Korycanek said.
The family is looking to expand their nonprofit so they can make more shirts for more kids.
“The whole thing has been a learning process, it's been amazing, who would have thought,” Fleege said. “First of all, you never think that your child, or your grandchild, is going to be the one to be diagnosed with cancer.”
The shirts were an invention born of necessity and now they’re a labor of love. And how is Drew doing?
“He is about to finish kindergarten, he'll be going into first grade. And he's thriving,” Korycanek said.
Korycanek said it can be hard looking back at where they started, and the scrapbook holds all of those memories.
“I knew it was there and it's still very emotional for me to think about this, even though he's been done with treatments, it'll be three years in September,” she said.
Drew rang the bell at the hospital on the day he finished treatment. But in many ways, they’ll always be connected to the other cancer families.
“There's new kids diagnosed, unfortunately, all the time,” she said. “And if we can help out just a little bit, the small things that helped us, we want to be able to give back,” she said.
For more information on Nana’s Tubie Tees, including how to order a shirt, or how to help, just visit https://nanastubietees.com/.
If you’d like to nominate someone for Natalie’s Everyday Heroes, send Natalie a message at [email protected]