When Nancy Ballard, 66, saw her first chemotherapy room in 2011, her heart sank. The walls were empty and drab, and she could tell where old artwork had hung because of the two-toned paint. There was chipped plaster and naked nails, and aside from that, nothing else. “I couldn’t imagine how anyone could even think about getting healthy in a room like that,” she says. (These are the 15 cancer symptoms women are likely to ignore.)
Nancy had never been affected by cancer when she stumbled upon the room. The recent retiree was on her way to see her general practitioner, Dr. Stephen Hufford, when a nurse commented on the painting she was holding. Nancy had just completed her master’s in botanical illustration and planned to deliver the painting to a client after her appointment. The nurse continued, “It would be great if we had artwork like that for our chemotherapy rooms.” Nancy hadn’t realized the rooms existed, and asked to see one. From that moment on, she knew it’d be her personal mission to improve the rooms.
She started immediately—e-mailing 20 local interior designers whose mission statements seemed like they might be a good match for the project. “I said, ‘You don’t know me. I’m not a non-profit. But my heart hurts after seeing these rooms.” She asked if the designers would be willing to donate their time, expertise, volunteers, and money to transform just one room each. (Don’t miss these 9 creative ways to volunteer and make a difference yourself.)
Six women wrote back immediately—each of whom had been personally affected by cancer. The women had been in rooms like the one Nancy had described and thanked her for giving them the opportunity to make a difference. Over the course of a year and a half, the group renovated the rooms at Nancy’s general practitioner’s office, Hufford & Knopf. Nancy knew that Dr. Hufford himself had been battling pancreatic cancer, and wouldn’t have been able to complete a project of such scale on his own.
A month after the rooms were unveiled, Dr. Hufford passed away—but not before expressing how much he appreciated the designer’s gifts. “All the patients feel soothed by it,” he said. “Everything is improved so the whole experience is better for the patients.” He even noted that his tone of voice was different in the rooms, and that he was better able to connect with his patients.
Soon, patients began requesting certain rooms. “They’d say, ‘I’d like to reserve the room with the coy fish,’ or, ‘I’d like to request the Venetian room,'” says Nancy.
The artist decided to expand the project. Since renovating Hufford & Knopf, Nancy has worked on 20 projects. Each project consists of multiple rooms, and in some cases, entire wings. Nancy and her team have renovated the entire children’s wing at San Francisco General Hospital, and two hospitals in San Salvador, El Salvador. The rooms impact more than half a million patients each year. “Everyone deserves to a have a space that is going to inspire them and be hopeful and lovely,” she says.
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Each project takes Nancy, whose initiative is now a registered non-profit called Rooms That Rock 4 Chemo, anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on its size. She works with a small team of San Francisco designers and also recruits designers from wherever a project is taking place. The designers meet with the hospital’s staff and storyboard possible ideas for the rooms. Common themes are calming motifs like “outdoorsy” or “fall.”
The nurses are usually the first staff members to jump aboard. “They know their patients will love this and what a difference it will make,” says Nancy. Whenever the team renovates chemotherapy rooms, they also renovate the nurse’s break room. “They’re the angels that are there every day.”
The effects speak for themselves. “We were in Philadelphia for a ribbon cutting and a woman was there on her third battle with cancer,” says Nancy. “When she saw what we did she said, “I’m gonna beat it this time. I thought I wasn’t going to but now I know I’m gonna beat it.'”
Looking for other ways to help someone through cancer treatment? Here are 12 little ways to support a loved one through chemo.