I have been blessed, I suppose, with a certain child-like stubbornness. I still believe in dragons. I still plan on being an astronaut. I think the most significant part of my job as the director of the Arts in Medicine Program at MD Anderson is to help tend to that little spark in each of the patients I serve in which they too know that imagination can transform reality.
This spark is something I’ve witnessed in our most recent project: making spacesuits using artwork created with patients, families and staff at MD Anderson.
Over the course of several months, hundreds of young patients and their families helped design two spacesuits with the help of NASA and ILC Dover. The first, called Hope, is a replica spacesuit covered with hundreds of pieces painted by our young patients.
The second, called Courage, is a real flight suit that was painted on primarily by pediatric patients who were in isolation during their treatments. Astronaut Kate Rubins plans to wear that suit during her trip to the International Space Station this year. Ultimately, a third spacesuit will be created with the help of pediatric patients from around the globe.
Cancer is a journey
In my six years caring for people going through cancer treatment at MD Anderson, I have seen that there are two dominant ways in which people view the cancer experience: The Battle and The Journey. While I understand and respect the metaphor of the battle and know that it gives people strength to see themselves as fighting and winning against their cancer, I have found myself more inspired by the idea of The Journey.
Of course, cancer is terrible. Of course, we want to defeat it. But hardship, whether we want it to be or not, is a great teacher. Hardships and challenges force us to discover truths about ourselves and about our world. We may even realize truths about marvelous and wonderful things such as the kindness of strangers, the importance of love, and the mysterious, gentle voice that answers us and guides us when we think we cannot go any further.
This journey of discovery speaks to one of the main goals of the Arts in Medicine Program – to help our patients feel better mentally, physically and spiritually as they go through treatment. As I’ve worked with our patients to design these spacesuits, I’ve watched young patients dealing with challenges and losses become engaged and focused. I’ve walked into patients’ rooms many times here at MD Anderson, and even if they’re crying, they’re soon laughing and engaged as they become focused on their art.
Sometimes it is easy to feel alone and insignificant -- especially if you are far from home, if you are stuck in a hospital room. Many times I have walked into rooms where the unanswerable questions were being asked: Why me? Why us? Why my child? Why my sister? Why my wife? Why my mom?
From those depths of uncertainty, I have learned that even the most vulnerable of us have a deep and powerful inner reserve of resilience. This can be summoned, coaxed out, just as a shy child treated with enough gentleness and respect can come out of her shell and feel part of the gang and want to share her story, laugh and joke and create until the fear and sadness dissolve right before your very eyes.
I’ve seen this happen so many times as I’ve worked on these spacesuits alongside our patients, siblings and their families, and that’s exactly what I’d hoped for when I came up with this project. A spacesuit, after all, represents hope and courage. When you think of an astronaut looking back at earth, a truly borderless and beautiful planet, a spacesuit also represents a profound unity, one that can often feel absent for those going through cancer.
I want the spacesuits to remind those going through cancer: You are not alone, and you are wonderful. But I don’t just want it to be in my voice. I want it to be a voice that resonates from space and can be understood in any language, a voice that is not so much heard as felt, that you can recognize as speaking directly to your heart to calm your worries and make you feel happy, amazed, truly connected and ready to face the mystery of the future.
Of course that’s a hard thing to do, but I figure if a bunch of kids fighting cancer, on their own heroic journeys, can pull together and send up a swirling, colorful, handmade spacesuit to be worn by an astronaut traveling around the earth weightlessly in a space station at 17,000 miles per hour, and we can somehow get the world to see it, this might be close, and perhaps the message will be received.