For years it had been a dark, gloomy space where patients sat in corridors awaiting radiation treatment and endured an open reception area and crowded nurses’ station, where they had to discuss the details of their cases publicly. Jane Kessler, vice-president, Clara Maass Foundation at the Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, New Jersey, decided to do something about the facility's radiation oncology unit. She envisioned a healing environment and raised the funds for a design upgrade.

As I accepted the commission and began work on this project in the spring of 2002, my mother was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. As I accompanied her to another facility for treatment, I felt hopeless and demoralized by the surroundings, which were not much different from those at Clara Maass. Although I could do little to improve my mother's situation, the Clara Maass unit, which treats 550 patients a year, provided an opportunity for me to design an environment that would have a healing effect for those patients. In October 2003, the project was completed—exactly one year after my mother passed away.

Several thoughts motivated me during the process. Cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy are understandably upset and afraid. The environment needs to support them, not add stress to their lives. Acknowledging the dignity of the patient through thoughtful space planning and amenities, such as monogrammed robes, is essential to their acceptance of the illness and the healing process.

I wanted to create a spa-like environment that would give patients a sense of relaxation and hope. This was achieved by incorporating elements of water, copper, and warm tones of wood and nature. Artist Arlene Kochman designed a botanical mosaic mural using a broad palette of colors. In addition, she created hand-painted diffusers for the custom-designed ceiling fixtures and sconces, to incorporate artificially created stones for which we could control the color, patterns, and density. We placed smooth river stones at the base of a waterfall, with its copper patina.

Soon after the renovated unit opened, staff noted the emergence of a remarkable ritual. Many patients were removing the stones as hopeful talismans and carrying them throughout their ordeal. As with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but on a much smaller scale, the unit's design prompted a degree of interactivity with the public. This was unexpected but, for a designer, a very gratifying occurrence.

Although some of the medical center's staff took a while to adjust to the new design, the patients took to it right away. I was particularly gratified by their appreciation of special features that had been incorporated, such as a craft-made birch floor lamp, rustic hardware, and artwork.

The success of this design was professionally and personally rewarding for me. For once I was able to do something about a disease that all too often leaves patients and caregivers feeling hopeless. I hope it contributes to the healing of each and every patient receiving radiation treatment at Clara Maass. HD