'Cat Immersion Project' Brings Joy to Isolated Cancer Patient
Cancer patient Maga Barzallo Sockemtickem is confined to a hospital room and can't be with her beloved kitty, Merry. So the staff at Seattle Children's brought her the next best thing. Cute cat video alert!
By Allison Takeda
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THURSDAY, August 9, 2012 —While Maga Barzallo Sockemtickem slept in her bed at Seattle Children's Hospital, staff members snuck into the 16-year-old's room and set up a makeshift tent and projector. When she awoke, she was surrounded by cats. Thousands of them.
Maga has been in and out of the hospital for the last year and a half, most recently for the past month, ever since she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a blood and bone marrow cancer. AML tends to progress very quickly, so it’s important to treat the disease quickly and aggressively. This means attacking the cancer with high doses of chemotherapy drugs, killing off the unhealthy and the healthy cells, and damaging bone marrow. Patients are at risk for life-threatening infections, bleeding, and other serious problems related to low blood-cell counts. Some people, like Maga, require bone-marrow or stem-cell transplants in addition to chemotherapy and radiation.
Maga waited seven months for a suitable bone marrow donor last year, confined to a room on the pediatric oncology ward at Seattle Children’s. She was finally allowed to leave the hospital after her transplant in November — only to return last month to be treated for graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a condition in which a donor’s immune system cells attack their recipient’s skin, liver, and digestive tract.
As part of her treatment for GVHD, Maga is back in isolation at the hospital, where doctors can monitor and control her exposure to outside germs and infection. Unfortunately, this requires also controlling her exposure to people and pets — which means Maga has been cut off from her beloved cat, Merry, for several weeks.
The Birth of the Cat Immersion Project
“I had spent a lot of time with Maga, and she was always talking about how much she missed her cat,” says John Blalock, who runs an art program for Seattle Children’s young cancer patients. Blalock, formerly a pediatric oncology nurse, is the hospital’s artist-in-residence. He visits the ward three days a week to work on creative projects with the kids and was one of the driving forces behind the recent viral video of patients and staff lip-synching and dancing to Kelly Clarkson’s hit “Stronger” — a video that has gotten more than 2.6 million views on YouTube, including at least one from Clarkson herself.
Having known Maga since his days as a nurse at the hospital, Blalock took a special interest in her and her cat. He wanted to find some way to bring them together. He and Maga started brainstorming.
“We thought about setting up a Skype session with Merry or even turning [Maga's] room into a cat,” Blalock recalls. They finally settled on something that would come to be known as the Cat Immersion Project: a slideshow of cat pictures projected onto sheets draped over Maga’s bed in a makeshift theater tent.
Blalock collected cat photos from staff. Maga suggested they solicit images on Seattle Children’s Facebook page. On July 19, the hospital posted a picture of Maga with the following message:
“Maga is a cat-loving cancer patient who can’t leave her room right now, or visit her own cat, Merry. We’re working on a special project to bring hundreds of ‘virtual’ cats to Maga’s room, and would love your help.”
Facebook fans responded to the request for photos in droves. Within a few days, more than 3,000 pictures had flooded the site from strangers nationwide. Blalock and his team spent hours downloading 1,800 of them and working with the hospital’s audio-visual department to organize a four-hour presentation, complete with a soundtrack of cat meows and purrs. Then they snuck into her room to set it up.
“It was really neat, because even though we had been working on it for a while, the final product was a surprise,” Blalock says.
Maga was thrilled. In a video made by Blalock, Maga's sweet voice oohs and ahhs over every photo, pointing out her favorites and noting which ones looked like Merry. Later, in a message on the hospital’s On the Pulse blog, she thanked everyone who sent in pictures:
“You guys remind me that there is so much good in the world, and it just makes me feel so much better and connected,” she said. “I can’t tell you how it feels sometimes, feeling disconnected and cut off from the world… and then with something like cat pictures bringing me back. Thank you all for your kind words and well wishing. It means more then you can ever know.”
Blalock is already hard at work on other ideas, like the Cat Immersion Project, that can take patients out of the hospital environment, if only for a short time and only in their minds and heart. Using a technique called camera obscura, the light in a patient’s room is blackened except for one small circle-shaped hole. Through that hole, Blalock projects images from outside the room onto the darkened wallsinside the room.
“These kids spend so much time here, and a lot of them can’t leave their rooms,” he says.
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