Plenty of parents refer to their children as little angels. At her baptism, Hadlee Fuchsel was dressed like one.

Over the summer, at 2 months old, Hadlee suddenly stopped eating. When her parents, Anthony and Mariah, took her to the hospital, doctors diagnosed their baby with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition that had caused her heart to expand — it took up most of her chest — and collapse one of her lungs.

A few days later, in early August, Hadlee was hospitalized at Mayo Clinic, awaiting a heart transplant.

The Fuchsels, who had moved from Montana to La Crosse, Wis., the previous January, had originally planned to bring Hadlee back to Montana to be baptized with family.

The hospitalization changed those plans. Unable to travel and uncertain about the future, they decided to go ahead with the ceremony. On Aug. 15 — four days after she was admitted to Mayo — Father John Evan from Mayo Clinic's chapel performed the service.

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The Fuchsels had purchased a dress for Hadlee to wear earlier, but were stymied by her hospital accoutrements — the tubes and wires. How would they fit in the dress?

"And then someone mentioned that they had gowns we could use," Mariah said. "It was just nice to have something to help cover everything that was attached to her. It was very cute."

Change of a dress

Hospital staff offered the Fuchsels three angel gowns to choose from — all tiny, pastel confections with hospital gown ties on the back. Each of the dresses was made from upcycled wedding gowns, donated by anonymous brides from decades past.

The Fuchsels just happened to pick a gown — white, trimmed with lace and embellished with beading — made by Lynn Gaber.

'Who ever does anything with their wedding dress?'

Early last year, Kelsey Chesney, a nurse at Mayo's cardiovascular ICU, decided to donate her dress to make "angel gowns."

NICU Helping Hands, a nonprofit based in Fort Worth, Texas, began stitching donated dresses into angel gowns for infants in 2013. Although the dresses are sometimes used for happy occasions like baptisms, many of the gowns go to bereaved parents, whose children have died in the hospital.

"Sad things happen, and unfortunately, we have babies that pass away that we just couldn't save, and so we have the families pick out an angel gown, and we dress the babies in that," Chesney said. "It's just a special memento they can keep to remind them of their child."

'Something really special'

Chesney, who was married in 2005, knew that Mayo supplied angel gowns, but Helping Hands paused its donation intake before she decided to contribute her dress.

"I just knew that (the program) was something really special, and I wanted to do that, too," she said. So she put out a call on Facebook for anyone who could make gowns from her dress.

Lynn Gaber answered. Gaber, who works in the cardiac ICU, has been sewing for most of her life. She's also made a habit of giving back, including making bags for Beads of Courage, a nonprofit that provides beads to celebrate milestones along a patient's journey. The angel gowns project appealed to her compassionate nature.

Gaber laid out Chesney's gown and decided where to cut so the "best" fabric was at the front of the gowns (the backs could be plain, since they would tie shut). Some have Chesney's dress pattern — flowering vines — across the front. Others were made with little boys in mind. Gaber used black ribbon to outline a vest, then sewed the buttons from the back of the wedding dress onto the front to mimic tiny tuxedos.

"When I showed Kelsey the dresses, she said, 'They're beautiful,'" Gaber said. "And (the women who donate their dresses) get a little teary, but, yeah. It's a nice thing that they can do, you know? Who ever does anything with their wedding dress?"

Gaber has reconfigured three wedding dresses so far, making a total of 24 gowns. She has a fourth dress from another one "of the gals at work," and has begun cutting it into the right shapes.

"I have an ample supply of gowns," she said.

The second gown, which came from a coworker's friend, had plenty of beading that Gaber used for decoration on the front of the gowns. That's the one Hadlee Fuchsel wore for her baptism.

Loving gesture

"My favorite patients are the children, so that's who I like to take care of and that's who I am able to take care of most of the time," Gaber said of her work in the cardiac ICU. "They come in all sizes and ages. These children are born with congenital heart defects and some of them only require one surgery to fix it, and some of them require multiple surgeries in different stages of their life. So some of these kids come back at different stages of their lives for the next repair, and we're able to take care of them, too."

Nothing can temper the strain and sadness of a child with a serious medical condition, Chesney said. But the angel gown project can help them remember something "very sweet in a terrible time. ... We really hope that these gowns never have to be used. But I think it's really special that someone is doing this," Chesney said. "It's more personable, it's more loving, I think that it's coming from our own nurses, our own staff."

Hadlee got her heart transplant during the last week of October. She headed home to LaCrosse on Dec. 28.

The Fuchsels met both Chesney and Gaber—both nurses worked in Hadlee's room during the four and a half months of their stay.

Back at home is a little memory box with mementos from Hadlee's first milestones. There's a baseball from the first game she went to (a La Crosse Loggers' game), a little beanie they got when she was born (blue and pink stripes), hospital bracelets from her birth (June 8, 2017), and cards the family received ("Congratulations on having a baby"). And a tiny white angel gown trimmed with lace — a reminder that she made it through her surgery.