Hyla Weiss is the kind of person who asks whether something good can be made even better. When she was being treated for breast cancer at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in 2011, she knew she was getting the best and most compassionate medical care possible. But Weiss also believed that the environment in which she received her daily radiation treatments could be made more soothing and comfortable.
“The emphasis was on care, which was excellent, but not on ambiance. The patient robes and gowns, for example, were typical hospital style,” says the 49-year-old Livingston resident, philanthropist and fundraiser. “After completing my treatments, I realized that it’s the ‘little things’ that can make a big difference in making the healing journey easier for patients and their families.”
For two years, Weiss kept quiet about her illness and treatment except to the closest of friends and family members. But she kept thinking about her feeling that a supportive healing environment might actually aid healing—a view that research supports. Today, cancer-free, she’s acting on her conviction as co-founder of a fundraising initiative called Comfort Project 360, aimed at making sure future cancer patients receive their treatments in a warm, uplifting setting.
In the fall of 2013, Weiss ran into a friend and fellow Livingston resident, Suzanne Unger, at a birthday luncheon. “Our older kids went off to college and we talked about it being time to do something, to give back and make a difference,” recalls Unger.
“I told Suzanne I’d decided it was time for me to tell people about my experience and help make things better for others in the same situation,” Weiss says. Unger, who had done volunteer work for the American Cancer Society years earlier, after losing her mother to breast cancer, was intrigued by the idea. “I was happy to do anything to help others fight cancer,” says Unger. “Not just breast cancer, but all cancers, because too many people in our lives are touched by all forms of the disease.” "The objects, color and materials around us actually have a physical effect on us and how we feel." -Florence Nightingale
The two launched Comfort Project 360 to create a supportive, comforting environment for patients and their loved ones in the department of radiation oncology. Saint Barnabas Medical Center Foundation already had a donation in place to remodel the physical space; Weiss and Unger vowed to take that project “360 degrees” by also enhancing the aesthetics of the space, providing “simple comforts” to patients and families and offering additional wellness programs to help heal mind, body and spirit.
For Unger, the project came at “a very interesting time in my life,” she says. “I turned 48 this year, the age my mother was when first diagnosed. I was filled with angst, and knew I could either focus on my fears or focus on making a difference in the lives of others. I remembered how anxious I’d been about my mother’s treatment, and that an aesthetically pleasing environment could be calming. There is value, at such a time, in the little things that recognize you as a person and not just a patient or a patient’s relative.”
Comfort Project 360 has a fundraising goal of $500,000, and has already reached the halfway mark. The first “comforts”— new robes and gowns designed by the high-end lingerie company Cosabella—have been ordered and “vanity bags” containing items that radiation patients need, such as special skincare products, have been underwritten.
The two women are also working side by side with the design firm that is overseeing the new construction. “We are together two or three times a week, either on our own or meeting with people at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, planning events and fundraisers, thinking of ways to grow this project,” Unger says.
Construction on the new space is well under way, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled for September 9. The space will boast new changing areas for men and women, a family waiting area, administration offices, a nurses’ station and education rooms—all decorated with life-affirming photos of nature and inspirational quotations. New exam rooms and tables are designed to store equipment out of sight so that “You will feel like you are in a hotel room, not a hospital room,” Weiss says. The next phase will include adding wellness programs such as meditation and nutrition education to uplift the mind and strengthen the body.
“We are two women who want to give back to our community and make people’s lives easier during a difficult time,” Unger says. “We want people who are dealing with cancer to feel warmth all around them.”