Wall of tiles designed to help cancer patients heal

Patients and families pass the time and beautify the waiting area

Patients undergoing treatment at the Siteman Cancer Center have a new option to pass the time. They can get creative and paint ceramic tiles for a display in the treatment area.

More than 400 tiles painted by cancer patients and their families are on dispaly in the Siteman Cancer Center.
More than 400 tiles painted by cancer patients and their families are on dispaly in the Siteman Cancer Center.

Arts as Healing, a program facilitated by the School of Medicine’s Medical Photography, Illustration and Computer Graphics (MedPIC) department, is currently working on “Your Square Matters,” which allows patients and their families to paint a 4-inch square ceramic tile. Already, more than 400 tiles have been completed and are on display in Siteman’s infusion center in the Center for Advanced Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

On a typical day in the infusion center waiting area, members of MedPIC’s staff greet patients and family members and offer them a seat at a table stocked with tiles, paints and brushes and photographs of completed tiles if a patient is short on inspiration. Patients can also paint while undergoing treatment in the infusion center.

Vicki L. Friedman, director of MedPIC, says Arts as Healing is designed to help patients express themselves and use art as a tool in healing.

Friedman knows what the patients are experiencing – she survived breast cancer 19 years ago. “I’ve been there, done that,” she says.

In the large waiting room outside of the infusion center, the tension is often visible on the faces of both patients and their family and friends.

“You’re going in there to try to save your life,” says Friedman. “The minute we bring them to the table, they start interacting and everything changes.”

A patient and his wife paint tiles for the Arts as Healing display at Siteman Cancer Center.
A patient and his wife paint tiles for the Arts as Healing display at Siteman Cancer Center.

The “Your Square Matters” program began with the goal of 500 participants and a 25-foot art display in the infusion center, Friedman said. MedPIC plans to continue the program as long as they have supplies and may create another display in a different location.

The Arts as Healing team has received positive feedback on the project.

“When people see the wall, they are often overwhelmed,” says Friedman. “Some cry, some smile, some just stand there and look. Some even have their picture taken with their tile and their chemo nurse.”

Judi Bolton, an ovarian cancer survivor and owner of Ceramic Tile Services Inc. in St. Louis, donated the tiles to Arts as Healing. Artmart, a local art supply store, donated paintbrushes, paint and other supplies.

Bolton got involved in the program when two staff members of MedPIC walked into her store asking for scrap tile. When they explained who they were and what they wanted to do with the tile, Bolton immediately got on board.

Bolton says she recommended a different kind of tile that she didn’t carry in her store. She called a competitor and ordered the tile using her own funds.

“I see the good it is doing for everyone,” Bolton says. “If this is what gives them hope, this is what we need to do.”

Keith Baizer, owner of Artmart, recalls that when Friedman came to him asking for supplies, there was no question that he’d get involved.

“One of our core values is that we give back,” says Baizer, about Artmart’s philanthropic programs to the creative community. “The ability for these cancer patients to express themselves and the physical aspect of creating art is very important for them.”

Some patients have been so engrossed in the tile project that if they are called for treatment while they are still working, they will ask the nurse if they can finish before going in.

“Those are the kinds of things where we just stand back and watch,” Friedman says. “It’s very overwhelming, very emotional. That’s the beauty of it. It can change the tone of the room in a minute.”

At the request of patients, the Arts as Healing program is preparing to offer private art lessons at Siteman.

Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.