Jeena Kar, OMS II (right), talks with Patricia Moreira-Cali, who wears a henna crown painted by Kar.
Art therapy

How painting henna crowns has helped me maintain my humanity

Before medical school, I volunteered to paint henna crowns on patients who had hair loss from cancer treatment. One patient in particular changed my life.

Everyone you meet in your life has a unique role and purpose in your journey. And every so often, you meet someone extraordinary.

Three years ago I met Patricia Moreira-Cali, who was battling Leiomyosarcoma, which she named “the Purple Dragon.” Our paths crossed when I volunteered to paint henna crowns for patients with hair loss from chemotherapy.

Every time we met, Patricia would tell me about her travels, her accomplishments, her journey—and through it all her humility would shine.

Of course I knew she had cancer, but it was impossible to view her as weak because she was so jovial. So full of life. I remember thinking Patricia was living exactly the life everyone should live, using art, journaling, and yoga to heal herself.

She went on adventures, tried cooking new dishes and was interested in learning about my culture. Sometimes Patricia would meet me wearing a fabulous ball gown, just because she wanted to.

Learn more about the art behind henna crowns by watching this video by Great Big Story.

She challenged me to do henna work that had symbolism and meaning. So many times, Patricia would make me start over—reminding me that this art isn’t just for me, it is for both of us. I needed to hear that.

When I started medical school, our meetings turned into brief emails, texts or messages. Patricia asked me to come to dinner with her, or to visit, and I kept putting it off. My replies to her became shorter as I grew more stressed. My first year drew to a close, and I found out that her condition had deteriorated.

She sent me a video. It was the same Patricia I knew, but she looked different—she looked tired. And I realized what I had missed.

When Patricia passed, I knew she was at peace and was ready to transition. This summer I grieved the loss of a mentor and a friend, but I also grieved at the humanism I lost at the expense of being in medical school. I was not the same person. I had become more self-absorbed, more stressed, more stuck in books than reality.

And so I spent the rest of my summer the way Patricia would, using art to heal. She brought me back to the reason I applied to medical school. It was always about connecting with people.

Patricia’s passing, like her life had previously, taught me a lesson.

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