A Place to Call Home

Patients find creative ways to make a hospital feel like home during treatment.

By Jessica Lawlor; Illustrations by Amy Holliday

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Dorothy from the beloved movie The Wizard of Oz had it right when she said her famous line, “There’s no place like home.”

For patients undergoing cancer treatment in a new city, far from family and the comforts of home, that sentiment can be especially true.

“One of the things we deal with a lot when it comes to fighting cancer is that there is such a lack of control over what is going on in a patient’s body,” explains Tanis Taylor, LMFT, Mind-Body Therapist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Being able to exhibit some control over even the seemingly simple areas, like the environment we are in, can be empowering.”

Small Steps, Big Impact
Small actions can make a big difference. To make a hospital room feel more like home, Taylor suggests that patients bring their own pillow, photos of friends and family, or a favorite blanket with them when they come to the hospital for treatment. She recalls working with one patient who covered the walls of his hospital room with letters, drawings and notes of encouragement from his community back home for support.

Sara Wargo, Guest Quarters and Salon Manager at CTCA® in Zion, Illinois, has seen patients and caregivers bring a wide range of similarly comforting items throughout her seven years at the hospital: “I’ve seen patients bring special pillows and blankets, a Christmas tree, a recliner, lots of pictures, ceramic figures, pets, religious objects, slippers, special coffee mugs, towels, laptops, crock pots, CDs, DVDs and air fresheners.”

Wargo is responsible for the daily operations of Guest Quarters North and West, a facility at CTCA in Zion that operates like a public hotel, with more than 130 rooms combined. Both Guest Quarters offer complimentary beverages, snacks, living rooms, fitness centers, guest computers and weekly activities—all with the goal of making guests feel cared for and supported.

“Our goal is to make each Guest Quarters feel like a patient is returning home. We use warm and inviting colors, comfortable furniture and welcoming faces to achieve this atmosphere,” Wargo explains.

Both Taylor and Wargo encourage patients and caregivers to bring the items they use at home daily to create a more homelike atmosphere throughout treatment and to remind them of the comfort they feel in their own environment.

Some patients have experimented with other unique ways to incorporate the comforts of home into their time in treatment. Read on for their stories.

An Adventure in Arizona
After making the four-and-a-half-hour trip between her home in Las Vegas, Nevada, and CTCA in Goodyear, Arizona, for treatment for pancreatic cancer, Jeana Churchill had enough of being away from home and came up with a creative solution to ensure that she spent time with her family.
“It was hard to be away from my husband and kids overnight, let alone for a week at a time,” Jeana explains.

A mom of four children (ages 24, 20, 14 and 11), Jeana, with her husband, decided it would be easier if the whole family was together while she underwent treatment. Luckily, Jeana’s kids were on summer break, so the Churchill family packed their bags and moved into a hotel in Arizona for the entire summer.

“The kids had the opportunity to experience the hospital. They got to know the staff, talk with my doctors and play games,” Jeana explains. “They felt very comfortable because they got to see exactly what I was going through, and I felt comfortable because I didn’t worry as much, knowing they were near.”

Jeana describes that summer as an adventure: “Kids love hotels, so they had a blast! We went swimming at midnight at the hotel. We took outings in the area whenever possible. The kids loved eating at the hospital and became friends with the chef. They were completely occupied.”

Being together made the journey easier on the entire family because it enabled them to feel a sense of routine and normalcy.

“Cancer throws your whole life around and changes everything,” explains Jeana. “Routine makes you feel like you’re normal. Having my family with me made me feel like I was in control.”

Bringing Home to the Hospital—Literally
Florida resident and former private investigator Theresa Titley literally brought her home with her when she traveled to CTCA in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for treatment. Theresa and her husband, Don, permanently live and travel in an RV, and the couple was able to park their home-on-wheels in the hospital parking lot throughout her chemotherapy and radiation treatment for anal cancer.

Theresa and Don came to Philadelphia in March 2013 and spent four months making the three-minute walking commute from their RV to the entrance of CTCA. “I can’t explain how grateful we were that CTCA allowed us to park our RV in the lot,” says Theresa. “Feeling like I was at home when I left the hospital for the day was something I cannot describe.”

Having the RV allowed Theresa to truly feel like she was at home. She was familiar with her surroundings and had all of her personal and special belongings with her. And because Theresa traveled by RV, she was also able to bring her rescue puppy, Misty, with her. “It was very comforting to have Misty with me while I went through treatment,” Theresa says.

Being in familiar surroundings also helped Theresa with her attitude and mindset. “Living in the RV gave me a much better attitude. I would have been a lot more upset and emotional if all I had was a hotel to go to,” Theresa explains. “I’m quite positive I would have taken it out on Don. Having the RV meant that if I needed to be alone, I could be. He could find something to do in the hospital.”

The RV also helped Theresa and Don find a community within CTCA. “Don knew all of the people who worked in security, and they’d come out to visit,” remembers Theresa. “I invited many CTCA employees to stop by and check out the RV.”

Having her own bed, blankets and even toiletries made Theresa feel right at home.

Theresa recalls, “When I got to the point that I was exhausted from treatment and too many people were around me and I needed to be alone, knowing I could come out here and lie in my bed was wonderful.”

Special Tokens of Home
Real estate agents Ken and Selena Butler, parents of two school-age children from Oxford, Alabama, spent a lot of time away from home while Ken was undergoing treatment for stage I aggressive mediastinal B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at CTCA in Newnan, Georgia.

Not sure what they would want to provide comfort, the couple brought many sentimental and practical items with them to CTCA to ensure that they would feel at home. “While Ken was getting chemotherapy, we didn’t know what to expect. We brought anything we would use on a daily basis at home with us to CTCA: pillows, blankets, a laptop, a Bible and photo albums to look at pictures of the kids,” Selena recalls. “We packed our car full of stuff from our house.”

Ken and Selena kept positive attitudes throughout the journey, thanks to the dozens of encouraging cards they received in the mail. “I brought the cards with me for inspiration,” Ken says. “Some were from people we knew, but a lot of the cards I received were from people I honestly didn’t know from local churches and our community.”

That gesture touched Ken. “I kept every card I received in the mail. I had a lot of free time during chemo, and I’d look through them there,” he explains. “That was really neat.”

Reminders of family helped Ken and Selena, too. “Looking at pictures of the kids helped me know that they were close. It was very comforting,” Selena says. “Anything that had to do with the kids would really help Ken out. I could see that talking to them lifted his spirits.”

On some occasions Ken and Selena brought their two children, ages nine and 12, with them to the hospital. “Bringing the kids to the hospital put their minds at ease because they could see what Daddy was going through,” Selena explains. “Plus, there was so much for the kids to do. They spent time in the game room, and my daughter and I did painting activities. Having them there made it easier on the whole family.”

Along the way CTCA became a second home for the Butlers, complete with a loving and supportive family.

Ken recalls the time when Joey, one of the infusion nurses, brought him a cake on his birthday, a special moment that touched the couple. They also fondly remember nominating a CTCA employee named Stephanie for special recognition and then having the opportunity to present her with the award to thank her for all she did for them.

“We have gotten to know so many people at CTCA,” says Selena. “We feel like they are our family.”

Create Your Own Home Throughout Treatment
As each of these unique stories makes clear, small steps to make your treatment environment comforting and homelike can make a big difference in how you feel throughout your journey.

Taylor encourages patients struggling with being away from home to spend some time thinking about what they might do to enhance their treatment space because it is frequently something they have the ability to change.

She suggests that patients ask themselves questions like these: What’s my favorite place in my home? What is it about that place that I find so nurturing? Is it a color? Fabric? People? The activities I do in that space? Then she encourages patients to think about how they might be able to bring a piece of that room with them to the hospital.

“Maybe we can’t move CTCA to your hometown,” Taylor says, “but there are ways to make your space in the hospital more meaningful and intentional to you while you’re here.”

No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results.