First-year Washington University medical student Iris Kuo’s classmates were intrigued by the lovely haku lei – a floral crown — Kuo wore for the class’s White Coat ceremony in the fall. Eager to share her Hawaiian culture with her new classmates, the Honolulu native offered to arrange a workshop to teach them how to make the colorful crowns. But before long, the idea blossomed into something even more meaningful: an opportunity to connect with and show kindness to patients coping with cancer.
“I had an encounter with a patient who shared with me her experience with cancer — from the diagnosis, to the treatment, to remission,” Kuo explained. “As she spoke, I was reminded that the science behind our medical interventions is only part of the care that health-care workers can provide to patients. I realized that I could take this workshop idea and maybe create some beauty by aiming to lift patients’ spirits.”
Kuo, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Washington University in 2016, arranged a workshop April 30 in the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center involving some 50 medical students, faculty, members of the Hawaii Club on the Danforth Campus, and St. Louis community members with ties to Hawaii, the latter of whom helped those new to the art of making haku lei. Together, the group made about 50 floral crowns.
With help from Kelsie Kodama, president of the Hawaii Club, and Ryan Sachar, a research assistant on the Medical Campus, Kuo distributed the haku lei on May 1 — Lei Day in Hawaii — to about 45 patients receiving care for gynecologic cancers at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University.
Maria Baggstrom, MD, an associate professor of medicine, supported Kuo throughout the planning process, and Siteman provided financial support.
“It worked out so beautifully,” Kuo said. “I got to share a piece of Hawaii’s culture with the workshop participants and the patients; I got to bring together different worlds I’m part of in St. Louis; and I got to bring some smiles to the patients.
“It’s believed that when you make a lei, you’re putting a piece of your self or your spirit into it for the recipient,” she continued. “It was my hope that, through the haku lei, the patients would feel our hope, support and aloha for a moment in their healing process. … These ladies, they’re fighting cancer, so if these haku lei made that process even a tiny bit better for them, that’s all I was hoping for.”