Comfort Project Treats Mind And Spirit For Those Battling Cancer
By Cheryl Conway
No matter the stage, a little bit of comfort goes a long way for victims and family members fighting cancer, from diagnosis to treatment.
Hyla Weiss and Suzanne Unger, both of Livingston, Jodi Bloom of Short Hills and several others can relate to this all to well and have formed a non-profit group called Comfort Project 360. As partners with Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Short Hills, Comfort Project 360 was established about eighteen months ago and has already made great strides.
The purpose of Comfort Project 360 is to enhance the patient and family experience while dealing with the diagnosis of cancer. Whether through renovating the current facility, providing more services in the waiting area, offering welcome bags to patients and even a cozy robe, Comfort Project 360 has been warming up the place.
“Saint Barnabas was taking excellent care of the body but thru research and articles there was evidence that treating the mind body and spirit of the patient was what helped in the healing process,” explains Unger, co-founder of the Comfort Project 360 along with Weiss.
Unger’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 48 and was treated at Sloan Kettering since she lived in New York.
“I spent a lot of time going with her for treatment; she had both radiation and chemo,” says Unger. “She passed away at 54. Again the care at Sloan was excellent but the environment at times was cold and sterile and that definitely had an impact on my psyche as well as my mothers.”
Weiss had gone through a similar experience when she went through radiation and surgery in 2010 for breast cancer as a patient at Saint Barnabas.
“I found the experience very difficult on my spirit and felt there were some small touches that have improved the experience,” explains Weiss. “The care has been great, but it was the whole experience,” like waiting for a hospital gown, in a space a “little dingy,” if felt like “patients waiting in a galley. I felt like I was staring cancer in the face. I found it very difficult on my spirit.”
Two years later, Weiss faced her second bout of cancer in her other breast. Again, with this experience, she describes, “it was cold; I didn’t feel comforted. I felt that more could have been done during the time I was there.”
Shortly after, Weiss “saw Suzanne at a friend’s birthday luncheon and we got to talking and told her of my experience and my feelings and she shared with me her personal experience with her mother and together we said that we were going to make a difference.”
The two women shared their idea with others and Created Comfort Project 360 to transform areas of the facility. Weiss explains that the name- Comfort Project 360- “represents caring for the whole patient: body mind and spirit.”
The idea is “treating the whole patient with a more holistic approach,” adds Unger. “It was designed to ease the mind and lift the spirits of adults living with cancer as well as complement the care already provided by Saint Barnabas Radiation Oncology Department.”
Weiss says, “Our commitment to this project is about helping others have an easier cancer journey in our community.”
One member of their board, Bloom says “it’s a very frightening time in your life.”
With Comfort Project 360, the purpose was “to create a calming environment” for cancer patients, says Bloom, co-chair of fundraising. “They already had outstanding care there but wanted a more comfortable environment.”
Bloom, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, was a surgical patient at Saint Barnabas and underwent six weeks of radiation there. “My experience was phenomenal; staff was extremely professional; level of care there was fantastic,” says Bloom. “While the services were fabulous,” Bloom says the facility was in need of a “facelift.” She describes her surroundings as “cold,” being surrounded by metal in the rooms and “big pieces of equipment. It was intimidating.”
When Weiss and Unger approached her with their idea, Bloom was fully on board.
“Anyone who’s going through cancer, you are fearful,” says Bloom, “some of the treatments are not pleasant.”
With a fundraising goal set at $500,000, the group set out to create the changes developed with the Director of Radiation Oncology Dr. Alison Grann, who “gave us the wish list.” Weiss says they started with this department first since she had experienced the radiation department as a patient.
Weiss explains the hospital’s primary interest is equipment and doctors; “enhancements comes secondary.” Unlike other hospitals, Saint Barnabas had not received enough funding to provide art work or welcoming baskets.
After some research on patient care and healing, the group found that “it’s experience, art work, the light that impact healing,” says Weiss.
“This is where healthcare is going,” explains Bloom, “to look at patients overall, 360 degrees; to treat patients fully, comprehensively as a whole, not just medically, but for the well-being overall.
So far the group has raised $758,000, according to Unger, with $150,000 raised from last year’s kick-off fundraising event with more than 400 people.
“There’s been such tremendous support from the community,” says Bloom.
The monies have gone to a $1.2 million multi-phase renovation project at the medical center. The renovations have included “fixing up aesthetics to rooms and waiting areas” including locker rooms, treatment rooms, nursing stations; uplifting and soothing framed art and paintings on the walls; renovating floors; and providing warming blanket stations; comfortable waiting area with snacks and beverages; music and televisions; positive, inspirational words and quotes on welcome monitors.
Instead of blank walls, “now we have murals,” says Bloom. The exam rooms, “they improved by making décor warmer; putting equipment behind cabinetry so it didn’t feel like a cold exam room.”
Through the Comfort Project 360, “small things” have been added like providing a “soft, comfy robe from Casa Bella” instead of “an old gown”; private dressing area, a cup of coffee, a welcoming bag with lip balm, cream, bar of Dove soap.
At Saint Barnabas, Radiation Oncology sees approximately 900 new patients annually, 75 per month and have delivered 13,500 treatments in 2014, says Unger.
For phase two of the Comfort Project 360, organizers are looking to work with the Medical Oncology Department, where patients receive chemotherapy, to see what the needs of their patients are, says Unger.
“It’s a much bigger project,” says Weiss, with 80 to 100 patients being seen a day, encompassing 23 infusion rooms and 17 exam rooms. “It’s our mission and vision for the next few years.”
Two programs that are being implemented are, It’s A Wrap, which is a two tier scarf program.
“In Radiation Oncology we are gifting a scarf to a female patients finishing treatment, and for a man, a coffee tumbler,” says Unger. “In Medical Oncology we would give both of these to patients starting their treatment. We are also working on a tea cart program in Medical Oncology made up of volunteers. The volunteers would be available to provide food and beverages to patients while receiving chemo. This provides small comforts along with the more personal human touch.”
The next fundraising event – the Second Annual Comfort Project 360 A Reason to Rock- is set for Nov. 12, at 7 p.m., at the Crestmont County Club In West Orange. R.S.V.P. to the foundation office at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, at 973-322-4337.
Funds have also been raised through in-home shopping events, bar/bat mitzva projects, spin classes and other events in town, allowing the project to progress, along with compassionate volunteers.
“As a cancer survivor, I’ve experienced what it is to go through diagnosis, hearing the word ‘cancer’ and going through treatments,” says Bloom. “It really stinks to go through that; it’s important to feel comfortable, so it’s not doom and gloom.”
Unger says, “I am committed to this project not only because of my mother but because of friends, family members and patients that I have met in the past year who have expressed what a difference an environment, a touch and a feeling of normalcy during a difficult time has helped their spirit,” says Unger. “Sometimes we just think of what is going to make the patient better, medically, but don’t put emphasis on the fact that surroundings and certain touches make healing and coping a better outcome.”
Currently, six members serve on the executive advisory board of Comfort Project 360, but there is room to grow.
“Our needs are donors, donors, donors,” says Bloom, “and building awareness.”
“There’s so much work to be done,” says Weiss. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com to get involved.
For more information or to donate, go to www.thecomfortproject360.com or www.sbmcgiving.org. Send checks, written to SBMC -Comfort Project 360, 95 Old Short Hills Rd., West Orange, NJ, 07052. Call 973-322-4330.