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Art Helps Children Face Cancer Treatments

Herald Writer
--Published on Sunday, July 11, 1999, in The Miami Herald (Neighbors Cover Story)

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Many children cry and try to run away when they have to see a doctor. But the patients of the Children's Cancer Clinic at the University of Miami/Jackson Children's Hospital react a bit differently.

One child runs from the elevator straight into the clinic as fast as she can. Another cries when he has to leave.

What makes the difference?

Staff members say in large part it's the Arts in Medicine Program directed by Letitia Cason, a child life specialist.

The program provides therapeutic and recreational art activities for young cancer patients.

``Psychologically, the art and creating reduces the stress of going to get examined. The children are much calmer and are just happier,'' Cason said.

Local artists are invited to work with the children and introduce them to different techniques and media.

The artists and children decide what they want to create together.

They work with water colors, acrylic paints, foam core, canvas and clay.

Many of the projects also include short poems and other statements made by the patients.

Their art projects hang all over the center. In the lobby, there is a colorful wildlife mural made of foam core. On another wall in the lobby hangs the ``Healing Fantasy Garden,'' which is made up of several murals with clay figures.

Each examination room is also decorated. One has framed clay mini-murals; another is the ``Bird Art Room,'' which has mobiles and a border of little ducks that patients cut out.

``I like to paint; I have painted a sun, a happy face, a little duck, a dog,'' said Kristen Agosto, a 4-year-old who's been coming to the center since she was 2.

She painted so much that center staff members gave her a section of the playroom and called it ``Kristen's Korner,'' where she kept all her paints.

In the room where patients get spinal taps and bone marrow tests, the ceiling tiles are painted with animals and other colorful designs.

The center also has canvases hanging from the ceiling with colorful handprints on them, including the one of a 5-day-old baby.

Also, there is ``Love,'' a mural and collage of pictures, poems and drawings of patients.

The center is currently working with artist Paige Karaboyas on a ``moving canvas,'' a privacy curtain from an exam room that now has huge, bright flowers and exotic birds painted on it.

``I don't mind coming here. [The projects] give us something to do while we wait,'' said patient Maria Kassab, 15. ``It makes me feel good inside, like I accomplished something.''

The patients just finished working on another collage mural with Xavier Cortada, which will be exhibited in the Mailman Center.

``From far away it is supposed to draw you in, out of sheer curiosity,'' Cortada said.

For this ``lifescape'' mural, patients were asked to draw or write what they were feeling.

For example, there is a drawing of a little girl looking out a window crying, but smiling too. There is a drawing of a bright sun peeking over mountains with ``CURE'' written inside it.

``Every time I leave this place, I grow,'' Cortada said.

Ignacio ``Iggy'' Garcia-Huidobro, 17, was a patient at the center and later returned as a volunteer. He helped Cortada and the patients create the mural.

``It was a great experience,'' said Iggy, who attends Sunset High. ``It felt good because I was sort of a role model who inspired those kids to think that they can prevail and live on; I made them happy and gave them hope.''

The staff, parents and siblings of the patients are also encouraged to participate in the projects.

The program, which is funded by Miami-Dade County Cultural Council, runs three months a year.

``I would like to have the program all year round,'' said Dr. Stuart Toledano. ``It gives patients a chance to express what they are feeling as they are going in for treatment for chronic illnesses.''