Nurse creates art to help childhood cancer patients through treatment

It takes more than Band-Aids with cartoon characters to put children receiving cancer treatment at ease, but Leo Flores knows how.

A post-anesthesia care unit nurse at MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center, he makes a point of getting to know his pediatric patients, who may undergo a series of 30 treatments in six weeks.  It doesn’t take too many visits for the self-taught artist to figure out what to paint for them over the course of their treatment: a favorite toy, an animal they’re interested in or maybe a character from a story.

“The kids actually start looking forward to treatment because they get to see how their painting has progressed,” he says.

So far, he’s created more than 50 paintings for pediatric patients undergoing proton therapy.

Connecting with young proton therapy patients through art

Flores honed his painting skills while raising his now 23-year-old daughter.

“She kept me busy over the years painting murals on her bedroom walls and helping with art and science projects for school,” he says.

While painting was just a hobby, he soon found a way to incorporate it into his nursing duties. A few years ago, he began designing colorful banners to celebrate pediatric patients’ graduation from treatment. The signs were so popular among patients that Flores soon realized he could use art as a way to connect with each patient.

“It’s a way to gain our youngest patients’ trust and give them a little distraction during their treatment,” says Flores, who has cared for patients as young as 6 months old.

Since patients must stay very still during proton therapy, sedation is often used for pediatric patients. Every time they wake up following a treatment, Flores or a colleague, Yvette Rosenthal, is there to provide comfort and safe care.

As Flores spends time with patients at each visit, he learns about their hobbies and passions. Many times, he then transfers their interests onto canvas.

 “A lot of times, the patients’ siblings get involved, too, by telling me, ‘Oh, that doesn’t look good,’ or ‘That needs to be changed,’” laughs Flores. “They don’t spare any criticism!”

Each week, Flores shows the child how the painting is progressing, until he presents the final painting to the patient after their final proton therapy treatment.

“The look on their faces when they receive the final product at their graduation celebration is priceless,” he says. “They can’t believe they get to keep it.” 

Over the past few years, Flores has made paintings for patients from Denmark, China and everywhere in between. He’s formed lasting connections with many of his patients and families, who keep in touch and text him photos of their artwork hung up in their home. 

The best job

Flores, who has been a nurse for 40 years, says he can’t imagine having any other job. He wakes up looking forward to interacting with his patients and making a difference in their lives – no matter how big or small.

“These kids are so brave,” Flores says. “The profession of nursing is about helping others, and if I can do anything extra, even if it’s being a play buddy for a patient while a parent takes a well-deserved nap in the waiting room, then it’s an honor to do so.”

A longer version of this story originally ran in Employee Notes, MD Anderson’s daily employee publication.

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Flores recently painted a patient’s favorite stuffed animal three-toed sloth.