By Chelsea Burwell (G’16)
The layout of most medical reception areas is relatively similar: chairs, end tables, brochures, magazines, and patients anxiously listening for their names. However, one waiting room at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center is facilitating healing for young patients as soon as they walk through the door.
Nested in the pediatric oncology unit of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, Tracy’s Kids is not just a waiting area—it is a safe and creative artistic space devoted to children and young adults affected by cancer. By way of art therapy, the non-profit organization helps young cancer patients and their families cope with the emotional stress, trauma, and difficulties of the diagnosis and treatment process.
According to the American Cancer Society, each year more than 10,000 children in the United States under the age of 15 are diagnosed with cancer. Though childhood cancers account for less than one percent of all cancers diagnosed annually, the rates have gradually increased over the last few decades, making cancer the second leading cause of death in children in the U.S. (after accidental injuries). However, thanks to advancements in medicine and therapy, more than 80% of young patients diagnosed with cancer survive for more than five years.
Since its founding, Tracy’s Kids has aided thousands of patients and families during the cancer recovery process at no cost to them.
Tracy’s Kids has raised more than $5 million to fund the flagship location at Georgetown, along with the six other locations in the Washington, D.C. metro area, Baltimore, San Antonio, and New York.
Difficult beginnings, worthwhile endings
The story of how the leaders of Tracy’s Kids crossed paths is just as awe-inspiring as the work that comes out of the program.
“I was diagnosed with cancer as a 10- year-old on the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed,” reveals Matt Gerson (L’84), president and founder of Tracy’s Kids. Recalling his own experiences as a young cancer patient, Gerson expressed his resolve to improve the patient experience for children and families coping with medical trauma. “Thirty years later, on my 40th birthday, I decided to support something that addressed the psychological side of cancer, because I understood how scared and lonely kids could be,” he explains.
In 1998, following a meeting with cancer research specialists, Gerson was referred to Councill, an art therapist at what was then Georgetown University Hospital. A professional artist, Councill was drawn to art therapy after learning about it from a music therapist. She enrolled in the graduate art therapy program at George Washington University in 1986, merging her love for people and art, and later interned at Georgetown Hospital in the pediatric hematologyoncology unit with Joe Gootenberg, MD.
“Our clinic only operated during the morning, so I was there three mornings a week, and we shared the space with the breast cancer clinic. I would set up the space and clear it by noon so the ladies for the breast clinic could come in,” Councill recounts.
At the end of her internship, Gootenberg sought funding to secure a permanent position for Councill at Georgetown. In the meantime, she worked as an art therapist at other hospitals in the area, but her commitment to the field made a lasting impression on Gootenberg.
“He called me three years later and said, ‘We’re going to write a grant. If you help me write it and it’s accepted, you can have the job.’”
Twenty-seven years after returning to Georgetown, the woman behind the organization’s name continues to practice and teach art therapy, and is a leading national advocate for the practice in pediatric spaces. In what started as a test run during an internship, Tracy’s Kids continues to expand. The philanthropic program now offers art therapy for hundreds of young patients each year in Maryland, Virginia, Texas, and New York, in addition to the District of Columbia.
Councill explains why starting the program at a space like Georgetown was necessary for her work to grow.
“Cura personalis is a big part of why my work here has been so successful. From the beginning, the hospital was open to the idea that we really needed to engage kids on their imagination and development, outside of receiving just the medical treatment,” Councill says.
The evolution of patient experiences and expression
Today, researchers notice the benefits of fusing art and medicine as a means of tapping into the patient’s overall health and fostering open lines for communication between patient and physician. However, avenues for art therapy, as well as the importance of space for treatment of children, are just now breaking through obscurity.
Though much has changed with regard to the technology used for detecting and treating cancer, the psychological and emotional toll of the disease remains. Feelings of stress, isolation, and guilt still befall some patients and families after a loved one is diagnosed. Councill, who has studied the psychological effects of cancer diagnoses on children and families, says some believe their diagnosis is a result of previous bad behavior. She recalls a conversation at the art table one day amongst patients and their siblings.
“These two brothers came in and while they were creating, one of the other kids randomly asked, ‘Why do people get cancer?’ And immediately, the brother said, ‘I know why my brother has leukemia. I pushed him off the bunk bed.’ He thought he had given him leukemia, because of the bruise after the fall, but in reality, that bruise diagnosed him,” she says.
Councill goes on to explain that those who feel this guilt after the diagnosis stifle their wants, needs, and feelings for the sake of the family, and attempt to make themselves smaller. “You can only be but so good,” she says.
Therefore, the art therapy benefits of expression, confidence-building, processing emotions, and understanding one’s health are vital to the patient’s overall well-being, particularly for children.
“My grandson told the nurse technicians, ‘You’ve got to hurry up and take my blood because it’s going to coagulate soon!’” recalls Mary Chapman, who travels from Delaware each month to bring her grandson and his brother to Tracy’s Kids. “I had to laugh a little, because he was so serious and sure about his body.”
Kristin Ramsey, fellow art therapist at Tracy’s Kids, explains that the agency with which these patients-turned-artists are equipped ultimately allows them to express themselves in ways that family members, and even doctors, may not have noticed. As kids tackle their inner conflicted voices—or “monsters”— Councill says the artistic process that each patient embarks on allows therapists and physicians to take a peek into their world.
“They are the masters of their own art, so we just let them take the lead. But then, we’ll get a lot of monsters, and when one comes up, we try to figure out what it wants to say or do. It can really be a vehicle for understanding kids’ feelings of anger and bewilderment,” Councill describes.
One of the paramount aspects of the organization is its emphasis on community. From patient-to-patient interactions to making art with family members, Tracy’s Kids promotes a communal atmosphere. The program’s physical spaces are designed to counter the siloed recovery process that many cancer patients endure.
“Everybody is trying to stay in their lane and get through treatment,” Councill says. “However, I have seen that being here gives patients the opportunity to build community and not be isolated. Parents can network, and I can connect with these kids and build a relationship with them throughout this process.”
Life-changing and conversation-shifting art
Thousands have been changed forever by Councill’s work and the Tracy’s Kids experience. With varied channels of artistic expression available—from painting and drawing to pottery and sculpting—selfdiscovery is working in tandem with treatment.
Many patients have returned to visit Tracy after completing treatment, telling her that they’re now interested in pursuing art or art therapy as a career. Danielle Eichner, a former patient at Tracy’s Kids, is now the trained art therapist at the organization’s location in Baltimore.
Kalani Looper has been coming to Tracy’s Kids since April 2017 when she was diagnosed with acute myeloblastic leukemia. During her five-month hospital stay, Looper was introduced to Councill and Ramsey. Upon starting art therapy, the 19-year-old District Heights, Maryland native admitted that at first she didn’t realize that her recovery began with writing and talking about her cancer diagnosis—a tough pill to swallow for some patients and families.
“Outside of here, recovery is not an open discussion, because cancer is almost like a curse word you can’t say, or a whistle only we can hear,” Looper explains. “But talking doesn’t have to feel like therapy. Every time I sit down, it’s like this amazing podcast except no one’s recording. You have a chance to talk about any and everything.”
Looper says that while cancer has tested her faith, she hasn’t let it change who she is.
“If people ever want to talk to me about cancer, that’s fine,” Looper says. “But don’t ever call it mine, because it wasn’t mine to have. I don’t claim it. It was never a death sentence; it was just an interlude.”
Find out more at www.tracyskids.org.