To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful on friends Melanie Dart and Denise Wiegel would be an understatement.
The two women already had demanding jobs, and the pandemic only added extra layers of complexity to their work. As an oncology nurse at the UW Carbone Cancer Center, Denise found herself having to support her patients in a new and often challenging way. And Melanie, a scientist with a local biotechnology company, was quickly tapped to do COVID-19 clinical diagnostic development at a time when testing wasn’t widely available. “It was 16+ hour days, seven days a week, for months,” she said.
Eventually, once things slowed down a bit, Melanie found herself needing an outlet – not just for herself but also for her young children. It was then she discovered a local group dedicated to painting rocks and hiding them around town for others to find.
“I thought, what a great idea, that’s something I could do with the kids at home,” she said.
So at the end of a long day, or whenever she could find a bit of time, she began painting her own rocks. For a lifelong scientist who had never really picked up a paintbrush before, her sudden interest in creating art came as somewhat of a surprise. “It turns out I’m both left-brained and right-brained,” she said.
Soon, friend Denise got wind of what Melanie was up to. Upon seeing the rocks, Denise thought some of her patients in the cancer clinic might like them. So she asked for a few rocks to bring in, a request Melanie happily obliged.
The response was immediate.
“The patients just loved them,” Denise said. “Their faces lit up. It was incredible.”
Since then, the two friends have collaborated to supply a steady stream of painted rocks to UW Carbone. Over the last year, dozens of rocks have ended up in the hands in patients, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Some rocks feature an inspirational phrase or a sassy slogan. Some feature designs or illustrations. Some have a little bit of everything. But no two rocks are the same, meaning each is its own unique work of art.
“Every batch just keeps getting more and more amazing,” Denise said. “And I don’t know if the patients enjoy them more or the nurses. Because I’ll carry a bag in, and all the nurses immediately gather around. They’re just so excited to see what’s new.”
A tray of painted rocks is now always present at the nurse’s station, and Denise keeps a few extra in her locker. Patients are free to peruse the available rocks and take one, and Denise often grabs specific rocks for specific patients once she gets to know them. Patients can keep the rock and many bring them to future appointments.
Somehow, the right rock always seems to end up in the hands of the right patient.
Maria Mena-Garcia immediately spotted the tray of rocks at the desk during her first treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma earlier this year.
“The colors caught my eye, such joyful colors,” she said.
For her, stepping foot in the cancer clinic was like stepping back in time. Having gone through cancer treatment once before, more than 20 years ago, Maria felt the memories rushing back – both good and bad. She remembered the fear and uncertainty of going through cancer treatment, but also the joy of being in remission and being able to create new memories.
Perhaps that’s why she found herself drawn to a rock with an image of a feather. She says it reminded her of the movie Forrest Gump, which opens with a feather flying through the sky and landing at the feet of the main character – a seemingly random action, but also, maybe not.
“I kept on staring at this little rock and I kept on saying to myself, it’s not a coincidence that I saw this,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘What is in here for me? What do I need to learn from this?’ And I chose to let that little rock be an instrument to remind me of positive things.”
That rock helped her through that day’s treatment, and the other treatments to come. She held the rock in her hand when she couldn’t hold an actual hand. Due to COVID-19 precautions, Maria had to come to the clinic alone for her first treatment.
“You go through this and you don’t have anybody there with you, and it’s scary,” she said. “You’re in a different place with no one there. For me, I chose to get connected with this little rock.”
While cancer treatment is inherently scary, having to come in during a pandemic can be extra fraught. But Denise says she’s seen patients like Maria visibly relax after handing them a rock.
“Their whole body just relaxes and it just puts their mind in a better place,” she said. “It lets them think of something brighter and happier. I know the cancer clinic is not everyone’s favorite place to be, but we hope we can make it as comfortable and welcoming as we can.”
On her last day of treatment, Denise encouraged Maria to grab another rock. A fresh batch had just come in from Melanie, and a final treatment is worth celebrating. This time around, Maria chose one with an image of a bench and a tree. While other people may have just seen a rock with a nature scene, Maria saw something else: a reminder to ‘be still,’ words taken from a favorite biblical verse.
On a day when she was fretting about whether her treatment would be effective and whether her cancer might eventually come back, the rock gave her permission to relax.
“I allowed myself to take myself into that rock and see me sitting on that bench and just being still and not worrying,” she said. “That rock, through the rest of my treatment that day, just gave me such peace.”
Inspiration to keep going
As the pandemic winds down and things start getting back to normal, Melanie says she has no plans to give up the hobby she took up one year ago. In fact, she’s only getting started, and has recently added painted “lucky pennies” to her repertoire.
“The stories Denise would come back with gave me the drive and inspiration to keep doing this,” Melanie said. “It means so much more to do it knowing that it is bringing a bit of joy or hope to someone going through real struggles.”
Her drive is also rooted in her own personal experience. Melanie remembers the kindness of the nursing staff at UW Carbone when her own father was a patient there. And while most patients who receive her rocks will never meet her, or know her own personal story, it’s clear that something passes through each rock which forms a bond between creator and receiver.
That’s something that Maria will attest to.
“Sometimes those personal touches, in my opinion, come from someone that has gone through a heartache, something heavy in their life,” she said. “There’s a connection there.”
And while the rocks have helped many patients through a tough time, they’ve also given friends Melanie and Denise a shared purpose over the past year, something that’s helped them stay connected to each other and even grow their bond during a time when many friendships have drifted apart.
At the end of the day, both Melanie and Denise know that a painted rock isn’t going to cure cancer or magically make everything better for patients going through what’s likely the worst time of their lives. But they also know that just a little bit of kindness can go a long, long way.
“If we can help patients even a little bit through a painted rock, that’s enough for me,” Melanie said. “If it’s enough just to change their day or perspective a little bit, that fills our hearts.”