Focus on distant hopes. You know what is close./Even though the trees passing the train are out of focus, you know what they are./Look to your distant star and your heart will take you on a beautiful journey./What surrounds you will take care of itself. "On Seeing," a poem by John Feight.
"I lay there," Ellen Stovall recalls, "looking at a ceiling of asbestos tiles. The doctors tell you to use imagery, but when you're there looking at walls with the paint peeling, smoke alarms, air-conditioning ducts, sprinkler systems and the cobalt machine . . ."
Stovall, now a cancer-patient advocate, was a cancer patient herself 11 years ago, and she remembers those sessions, flat on her back under the radiation equipment, as among the loneliest of her life.
"Most of my patients have said that," confirms Dr. Harmar Denny Brereton of the Georgetown Medical Center's oncology radiology department.
"It is a lonesome experience for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that nobody can do it with you. You have to be in that room all alone.
"Oh," he says, "our people come in, and they set it up. They're as comforting as possible -- understanding and gentle -- but there is a part of therapy that only can be done alone . . . And that's when the door closes and the radiation beam is turned on.
"I don't want anybody to lose sight of the fact that this is necessary and wonderful . . . it cures many patients . . . yet it has to be done alone . . ."
Enter John Feight.
Because of Feight, in Georgetown and in more than a score of hospitals throughout the world, that loneliness is being eased, a little.
Feight -- artist, poet and business executive -- burns with an intensity that momentarily may be disconcerting to those he touches. He is a zealot, in a way, but his passion is peacefulness, his intensity directed to helping bring a moment of surcease to the patient confronting mortality alone.
John Feight paints murals on hospital walls. And ceilings. And corners. Hallways, lounges. Patients' rooms. His goal, he says, is "to literally turn hospitals inside out" by painting outside scenes inside. And wherever he paints, the patients paint with him -- and sometimes the doctors, nurses, administrators and volunteers. And their families. His own family, his wife and two sons, also paint with him on vacations.
Today, patients on their backs in Georgetown Hospital's oncology/radiation department look no more at acoustic tile and drab walls. Instead there is a painting of Jonathan Livingston Seagull against a cerulean sky, soaring over a calm sea.
"I don't paint on my back like Michelangelo," says Feight. "All the stuff in the ceiling comes out. I put the panels on the floor and paint them and in about three hours they're back up . . . the stripping creates sort of a window frame effect and it looks like a skylight.
"There's a slight little moment when you first see it, a Camelot moment when you think you're looking out of a window . . . that little moment is what I'm after."
Ellen Stovall, 35, heard about Feight long after her own battle against cancer had been won and she had begun devoting herself to helping other cancer patients.
Feight, 42, who has never had cancer himself, awoke to his mission when in Paris 8 years ago, where he was having a kind of career crisis and was walking the streets, drinking in the art, architecture and ambience.
Now, in addition to his painting he leads a cancer support group in Atlanta, his home city where he works for Scientific Atlanta, a communications and instrumentation company.
He has painted some 600 murals in Atlanta's Northside Hospital alone, at the same time infecting patients with his homespun philosophy of hopefulness and helpfulness. And accepting from them the courage and strength their experience often imparts.
Some hospitals pay Feight for his materials. Some can't. He never asks for anything except permission.
Lately he has been painting 16 murals at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute in New York and this winter he is scheduled for a long-negotiated trip to the Soviet Union where he hopes to paint three Moscow hospital interiors.
Feight's works tend to colorful jungles, with zebras and giraffes predominant among his animals, and to landscapes and seascapes with the ubiquitous seagull. He has painted several murals at the National Children's Medical Center here, as well as the six at Georgetown.
Stovall and Dr. Brereton hope he also will paint at Georgetown's Lombardi Cancer Center now under construction.
"It does make a difference," says Brereton. "There's nothing we can do that will completely attenuate the aloneness or the anxiety . . . but we try to minimize it, understand it, empathize with it . . . This is a very important topic, because if the patient feels as comfortable as possible, as reassured as possible . . . that helps them to deal with their disease in a far better way . . .
"And that's where somebody with his artistic talent has been just . . .wonderful. We paid him for the materials, but his is a service that comes from his heart."
"With all my heart and strength/I want Camelot to be. Now!/In our time. It's beauty./It's loving. It's caring." From Reflections, a book of poems by John Feight.