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Heart in the right place

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From left, administrative analysts Yessenia Williams and Sharly Lembky examine the embroidered hearts at UCSF with Art for Recovery director Cynthia Perlis. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

Cynthia Perlis for nearly three decades has sat at the bedside of patients stricken with life-threatening illnesses in San Francisco and encouraged them to share their experiences through art.

Now she’s putting art into the hands of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel at UC San Francisco’s new Mission Bay hospital complex.

Perlis, director of the Art for Recovery program at UCSF, spent the summer helping patients and volunteers create 500 palm-sized embroidered hearts for medical staff to hold, look at or think of when a patient suffers cardiac arrest within the walls of Mission Bay’s cancer, children and women’s hospitals.

In her office Tuesday on the fifth floor of the Mission Bay cancer hospital, Perlis handed out the first batch of hearts to administrators and nurses, explaining how they can help both patients and medical staff during the most serious and stressful moments in a hospital: code blue alerts (for adults) and code white (for children).

“I’m hearing code blue and code white … [And] I was stopped in my tracks. I was really upset,” Perlis said. “This is very intense work, and we all need to stop and we need to pay attention.”

The idea came to her early one morning in June.

“I thought, what if we made hearts and distributed these hearts to the medical staff so that when they heard a code blue or a code white, they could touch this for a moment and either say a prayer or meditate,” Perlis said.

She has read numerous studies that show prayer, meditation, or even positive thoughts can potentially change the outcome of the patient, and she believes that even if a doctor, nurse or patient is not religious, taking a moment to send a good wish can help.

“Research has found out that … we can possibly change the well-being of someone in distress if everybody at UCSF stops for a moment and thinks about that person,” she said.

Spencer Seidman, a San Francisco-based social worker, agreed that regardless of a person’s religion, prayer or positive thoughts are beneficial. When Seidman worked at UCSF’s Mount Zion facility, he would visit St. Dominic’s Catholic Church on behalf of his patients — even though he’s Jewish.

“Did it help my patients? I really don’t know objectively, but it helped me a lot,” Seidman said. “And in some way I do believe that certain things can [help] in the healing process.”

Perlis first brought art to the bedside of patients in The City in 1988, during the AIDS epidemic. She recalled seeing patients — mostly young men — stricken by blindness, cancer and other ailments brought on by AIDS. She would hand them art materials and ask them the questions that no one else wanted to ask.

“I was that person who said, ‘What do you think happens when you die?’ and ‘What is this like for you?’” Perlis said. “And I would help them to express that through writing and art making.”

One patient, she recalled, drew a self-portrait but replaced his eyes with IV pumps that clicked away in his hospital room.

Today, Perlis primarily works bedside with cancer patients, encouraging them to share their feelings through art. She holds a weekly open art studio for cancer patients and visits underserved communities and locations like the San Francisco women’s jail, where breast cancer patients help sew quilts that are displayed on the walls of the new Mission Bay hospitals.

Also on the hospital walls are 1,000 small canvas squares — some with quotes, others with drawings — that were decorated by patients and their families.

“My mission is to let people be authentic,” Perlis explained.

Meanwhile, the small felt hearts continued to disappear from Perlis’ office Tuesday as more and more hospital staff stopped by.

Jiemi-Lee Manaois, an administrative assistant at UCSF, took one of the hearts to keep in her desk. She hopes it will remind her to think of the patient when a code blue or code white alert is sounded.

“Maybe I’ll hold on to it and say a little prayer,” she said.

The Art for Recovery program costs approximately $50,000 per year, not including salaries, UCSF officials said.

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