Elena Gomez
Elena Gomez, an oncology nurse at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, says when she first gave one of her hand-painted rocks to a patient earlier this year, the young women’s “sadness turned to happiness.” (Photo: UHN)

As an oncology nurse, Elena Gomez spends her time offering care and comfort to cancer patients.

Away from work, Elena has always enjoyed arts and crafts, seeing it as a form of escape from the stress and emotional toll that comes with nursing people when they are at their most vulnerable.

Those two worlds have now come together – in the form of brightly-coloured rocks, which she first began painting earlier this year and gives to patients, and has shared in an art session with colleagues.

The result is a delightful blend of artistic beauty, deep compassion and staff resiliency.

"In the back of my mind, I always thought it would be neat to give them to patients but I wasn't sure how it would be perceived," says Elena, who gathers the rocks herself from several Lake Ontario beaches, cleans them and applies a dark undercoat before brushing on satin acrylic paint to make intricate designs.

Elena's rocks
Elena is painting striking mini mandala designs and inspirational messages on more than 50 rocks to give as gifts to patients on three units at the Princess Margaret. (Photo: UHN)

But then, a young patient "was having a really bad day." So Elena, who works on 17A, a Medical and Radiation Oncology Unit at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, went to her locker, grabbed a painted rock and offered it, saying: "If I'm sad, I use it to become centred. It helps me. Maybe it can help you."

The response was transformative. On many levels.

"I didn't expect it," says Elena, still surprised months later. "Her sadness turned to happiness."

Since that day, Elena has given rocks, which fit in the palm of your hand, to a few more patients. Some of the rocks, like that first one, are striking mini mandala designs. Others also feature inspirational messages such as "Hope," "Love" and "You are strong." She's also teamed up with Christina Lee, the Art Therapy Intern at the Princess Margaret, to lead a session on rock painting with her nursing colleagues.

To celebrate the holidays, Elena is now painting more than 50 rocks, one for each of the inpatients on Units 17A and 17B, as well as the Palliative Care Inpatient Unit on the cancer centre's 16th floor.

"We always say nurses are caring and compassionate," says Pearlina Dawes, Nurse Manager for Units 17A, 17B and 16P. "Elena shows it.

"No one asked her to do this. She's never asked for money or time or any resources. She just did it."

'Using her hobby to touch the lives of other people'

Pearlina recalls a patient who received a rock from Elena with "Hope" painted on it. The gift resonated with him, Pearlina says, because "Hope" was an acronym for his mantra: "Hang On, Pain Ends."

"I will never look at the word 'Hope' the same way again," Pearlina says.

"Elena is using her hobby to touch the lives of other people, including her fellow nurses. It's special."

Bob Stein agrees. Elena gave his wife, Teresa, a rock painted with the words: "You are strong." It served to pick up the spirits of both of them, Bob says, noting it remains "displayed proudly" in his wife's room.

"It really means a lot to us," Bob says. "When you're going through a tough situation, you really appreciate people doing things for you.

"It really warmed our hearts."

Elena, who has worked at the cancer centre for nearly seven years, began painting the rocks after seeing on Facebook the creations of her cousin, Chantel, in British Columbia. Elena enjoyed the medium and mentioned it to Christina, the PM Art Therapy Intern, suggesting it as a fun activity to do with patients.

Watch in this time lapse photography video how Elena transforms an ordinary, wave-worn rock from a Lake Ontario beach into a beautiful piece of art. (Video: Elena Gomez)

In addition to adding rocks to the "art cart" she takes to sessions with patients, Christina also brought them to an hour-long "Sharing and Caring" event for staff on 17A. With Elena leading her colleagues, the rock painting served as "a form of group therapy," Christina says, as nurses painted words of encouragement and various colours and designs while discussing work challenges and coping strategies.

Christina has done similar sessions on a drop-in basis for staff on other in-patient units at the Princess Margaret, including 17B, 14B, 14C and 15C. She's also added rock painting into her art therapy with patients, along with such activities as watercolour painting on canvas and colourful yarn pom-poms.

"It really speaks to Elena's kindness and compassion that she's shared this with all of us," Christina says.

For her part, Elena says even though she's done many rocks recently, she's still enjoying the artistry of it.

"I find the act of painting the rock is almost like meditation," she says. "It's very therapeutic."

She also remains overwhelmed by the response, both from staff and from patients, to her work.

"The last time I gave a rock, I almost cried because the patient cried," Elena says. "It meant a lot to her and she felt a little better and, as a nurse, it felt good to be able to make a patient feel better.

"When they find it meaningful, it makes it more meaningful to me."​

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