University of Iowa using art to lessen radiation fears

Medical student Wieren Liu decorates masks worn by children

First-year University of Iowa medical student Weiren Liu decorates a radiation mask for a child receiving treatment. The idea is to make the masks less scary for children. To date, Liu has decorated upward of 40 masks. (Submitted Photo)
First-year University of Iowa medical student Weiren Liu decorates a radiation mask for a child receiving treatment. The idea is to make the masks less scary for children. To date, Liu has decorated upward of 40 masks. (Submitted Photo)

IOWA CITY — Children who brave the reality of radiation therapy often are thought of as heroes. Super heroes. And a University of Iowa administrator has created a way for them to look the part.

Jana Grienke, clinical department administrator of the Radiation Oncology Clinic in the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, about a year ago went looking for a volunteer to help recreate an initiative she’d seen in Canada to turn radiology masks into art — or disguises of sorts.

She found what she was looking for in first-year medical student Weiren Liu, who signed up to decorate the masks according to patient wishes. To date, Liu has decorated 30 to 40 masks for radiology patients of any age. Some have requested characters like Spiderman or My Little Pony. Others have gone with a theme — like the ocean or John Deere, according to the UI Health Care news service.

Patients undergoing radiation treatment have to be secured to a table under a plastic-mesh mask that is molded to their face and upper torso. Sessions can take 15 to 20 minutes — a frightening prospect for patients of all ages.

Liu creates a canvas for his artwork by covering the masks with white tape. The decorating process can take two to four hours — depending on the request, according to Grienke.

The university offers the service to all pediatric patients who require a mask for daily radiation, and Grienke said they have the option of keeping the molds after they’re finished.

The program has lessened the scariness for some patients, she reported of the feedback.

“They like being able to choose what character their mask will be decorated, and we have had reports that some children even enjoy putting them on,” Grienke said.

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So far, Liu is the UI’s only radiology mask artist, but Grienke plans to find a successor and continue offering the service after he leaves.

Patient responses have made the project time and resources well spent, according to Grienke, who reported one anecdote of a girl who refused to be fitted for a radiation mask until seeing pictures of Liu’s past finished products. She immediately agreed to the fitting, according to UI Health Care news.

“This is exactly the kind of effect we wanted to have with the patients,” Liu said, according to the UI Health Care news report.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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