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A Mother’s Love of the Arts Inspires Her Daughter to Help Others Heal

Myrel Schlaffer (pictured above left with her daughter Heather) was diagnosed with terminal bile duct cancer at the age of 61, and came to Northwestern Medicine™ for treatment. Here, Schlaffer received care from Joshua Hauser, MD, an internist with expertise in palliative care.

Palliative care focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness, whatever the diagnosis. The goal of palliative care is to improve quality of life for both the patient and family. Care is provided by a collaborative team of doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains and other specialists who work with a patient’s other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. Palliative care is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness, and can be provided together with curative and life-prolonging treatment.

After Schlaffer’s passing, her daughter, Heather Gustafson, and the Women’s Council of Realtors made a special donation to Northwestern’s Palliative Care program in her memory. Explains Gustafson, “Our wish is that the Palliative Care Arts Program will empower patients and their families to communicate and better cope with the life-threatening illnesses they are facing.”

Their first gift helped to purchase books (three for adults and one for children) which are given out at clinicians’ discretion to help family members who are dealing with end-of-life issues of a loved one.

Once the books were purchased and being distributed, Gustafson explored how she could help to impact the lives of even more patients. Her mother had always had a love and appreciation for art, and this inspired Heather to fund a Palliative Care Arts program at Northwestern. Thanks to Gustafson’s donation, the hospital engaged an arts therapist, Audra Eisin-Banazek, to work one-on-one with palliative care and hospice patients and their families.

During an individual session, Eisen-Banazek would assess how the patient or family was coping and what issues seemed to be most pressing to them. She says of the sessions: 

“At times, all the patients needed was distraction—the feeling of being able to engage in a positive outlet. In these instances, the focus was on the art-making. Sometimes patients were struggling with their diagnosis, prognosis or psychosocial needs. In these cases we would discuss their concerns, and I would find an art therapy intervention which would help them address and process their individual issues. The feeling of being productive and creative provided all of these people a positive experience as well as a memento they could keep.” 

Below are some examples of the art that was created by patients during their sessions:

 

 

Gustafson continues to honor her mother’s memory through her support of the Palliative Care Arts program. She is currently raising funds in order to extend the program, and also has accepted an invitation to join the newly-created Northwestern Medicine Palliative Care Advisory Council, where she will help to raise awareness and funding for the program throughout the community.

Dr. Hauser says, “Heather’s two gifts -- the books about coping and bereavement and the support of art therapy -- have been important additions to our program. We have always aimed to support patients and their families in as many ways as possible. These two gifts help to broaden and deepen that support.”

You can click here to donate to the Palliative Care Arts program in memory of Myrel Schlaffer. For more information about philanthropic opportunities in Northwestern Medicine Palliative Care, please contact Jorie Parwani at Northwestern Memorial Foundation via email or at 312.926.4198.