You've Got Mail! (Bet You Can't Guess Who Sent It)

Pictured: Barb Murak, one of Roswell Park's Artists-in-Residence, shows off a postcard painted by a patient for delivery to another patient.

For the past three years, Barb Murak has been an unofficial messenger for Roswell Park patients who are recovering from a blood or marrow transplant (BMT). Pulling a handcart filled with art supplies, from time to time this member of the Creative Arts Team stops by an inpatient room to deliver a surprise. “Knock, knock!” she calls out. “You’ve got mail!”

Some of the recipients are confused. Almost all are curious. (“What are you talking about?” an older lady once asked her. “I don’t know anybody here. Nobody sends me mail.”) Then Barb reaches into a folder and selects a colorful, hand-painted postcard with a cheerful message written on the back:

“Happy days ahead!”

“Hope you’re feeling better.”

The person who created the card might be another patient, the loved one of a patient, or a caregiver. Often it’s a mystery, because most senders choose to remain anonymous. But after the card reaches its destination, Barb invites the recipient to create a new card and send it on to someone else, building another link in a chain of good wishes.

The project was inspired by a woman named Pat, who grew bored and restless while recovering from a BMT in 2014. Not having a variety of things to do is a common challenge for BMT patients, because they remain in the hospital for several weeks after the transplant. They are at high risk for infection during this period, so they can’t leave their rooms except while getting exercise by walking laps around the hallway. And unlike inpatients in most other areas of the hospital, they can’t visit with one another to pass the time.

Never miss another Cancer Talk blog!

Sign up to receive our monthly Cancer Talk e-newsletter.

Sign up!

To entertain patients, relieve stress and help them stay active, Barb Murak and Roswell Park’s Creative Arts Team make the rounds among the clinics and all the inpatient areas, including the BMT Center, offering art activities to those who are interested and feel well enough to participate. One day when Barb stopped in at her room, Pat confided, “I wish I could talk to the other patients on the floor. Can I write a note to someone to say, ‘I’m thinking of you’?”

The two quickly came up with an idea: to build connections between BMT patients by inviting them to decorate a blank postcard — and maybe add a few words of encouragement. Barb bought booklets of blank postcards made of thick paper designed especially for painting with watercolors. She put them in a kit with paintbrushes and a watercolor case, which are disinfected carefully after each use.

Facing the blank card, some patients protest, “I’m not an artist!” or “I don’t know what to draw.” But Barb’s suggestions get things started. “You can just do zigzags, or write your name or your initial. Or we can wet the whole postcard, and then when you touch the paintbrush to it, the paint will spread out and make these beautiful colors.”

Gradually the images take shape: a tropical island with turquoise water and bright-green palms waving in the breeze, a pair of beat-up boots with the message “Happy Hiking!”, a basket of bright flowers, a vibrant red-and-blue house next to a sheltering tree, a sailboat headed toward a glowing sunset.

Sometimes a family member works with the patient to create a card, one person painting and the other providing the words. Sometimes the family member makes a separate card.

And sometimes the card’s message is written for a particular kind of person. One caregiver made a card and asked Barb to deliver it to another caregiver. The message: “I know what you’re doing. It’s very difficult. It takes a lot of love.” A man painted a scene with a mountain and pine trees, specifying that he wanted to give it to another man. “I’ve been where you are now,” he wrote. “Never give up.”

Some of the paintings are simple; some are intricate. Some cards are blank on the back, and others are inscribed with inspirational words. But every one sends the same message: Someone cares about you. Pass it on.

Roswell Park’s Creative Arts Team is funded entirely by donations to Roswell Park and proceeds from the Roswell Park gift shop.