Nothing starts a conversation like a nice pair of shoes. And with more than 100 pairs of gold sneakers squeaking through the halls of Mayo Clinic in Arizona, there's bound to be some chatter.
Behind those squeaks is pediatric radiation oncology nurse practitioner Elizabeth Eden, who says she hopes the conversations that the shoes start end with a better understanding of childhood cancer.
Just over a month ago, Eden set out to upcycle and create gold-painted shoes for colleagues, pediatric patients and their families to wear in honor of the "Go Gold" campaign for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September.
Her creations are already drawing attention. And Eden hopes the initiative will spread and inspire interest in the important role the Pediatric Radiation Oncology area plays in the lives of young patients with cancer in the Southwest.
Eden describes herself as an avid fan of thrifting and Goodwill stores. She likes the idea of giving new life to items at the end of their road. And she does that with flair.
"I had recently made some 'Nacho Libre' and 'Napoleon Dynamite' shoes for my family's orthodontist, who gives them away to his patients in a raffle once a month," she says.
Ideas like that don't always come on a schedule. "I don't sleep well, and when I wake up, I have these late-night ideas," Eden says.
Watching the clock late one night, she realized her new hobby might be the vehicle she needed to bring awareness to her first passion: bringing joy to pediatric patients with cancer.
"September was coming, and I thought, 'We need everybody that works in pediatrics to wear gold shoes to show the kids that we're a united team and we are all here for them,'" she says.
She didn't sleep on that idea.
Eden set an ambitious goal to restore and paint 100 pairs of shoes in one month.
Since the thrifted shoes were in varying conditions, she found that the prep work required before painting was quite time-consuming. From start to finish, each pair took several hours.
"There's a lot that goes into it," she says. "I don't know what the shoes' life was before this, so I wash them a few times and sanitize them, then I put them back together if they need fixing. That can take a while."
In documenting the process on social media and talking about the initiative with colleagues, Eden says she found an unexpected community of support.
"People will tell me, 'What if we tried this?' or 'Hey, this paint is really good you should try it.' It's another way to interweave us in a really joyful and positive way," Eden says.
The tips and advice, she says, have helped speed up the process.
Thanks to her expanding network, Eden also connected with a childhood cancer charity that happened to be giving away an essential part of every sneaker.
"I had been buying gold laces, but someone sent me a message on social media about Solving Kids' Cancer, and they have a program that gives out these gold laces. I reached out to them, and within a week, they sent me 150 pairs of laces," Eden says.
By late August, Eden reached her goal and began distributing shoes to anyone who was interested in donning a pair. The word spread quickly, and staff from collaborating departments laced up their gold shoes in September to join the movement.
"The staff is growing, and it's becoming a more cohesive group. They're getting to know each other and feeling a bond," Eden says.
"This is a rough job. Sometimes we lose patients or parents are having a really hard time, and we absorb a lot of that emotion," she says. "The initiative is something happy in a day that isn't always joyful, and it's a good outlet for me."
Eden also credits the initiative for the new friendships she's made.
"I joined Mayo Clinic in February. Honestly, I didn't know a lot of names until this whole project happened. And now I feel a very strong connection to them," she says. "I think the biggest thing for me was having support from my colleagues. That meant the most to me."
Eden doesn't plan to kick up her feet any time soon — at least not while there are stories to be told. The Gold Shoe Initiative, which she hopes to expand next year, is one of the many ways she and her Pediatric Radiation Oncology colleagues go above and beyond to create warmth and comfort for the patients they care for.
The hospital can be a frightening place for any child, and Elizabeth Hardin, a child life specialist for the Department of Pediatric Radiation Oncology at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, says small things can bring the most joy to patients. "I want to create experiences where they feel normal and heard, and maybe they even get to have fun," she says.
As the only proton beam therapy program in Arizona — and one of only four in the southwestern U.S. — Mayo Clinic in Arizona, in collaboration with Phoenix Children's Hospital, serves a critical role for pediatric patients in the area.
Hardin says she hopes awareness of the Gold Shoe Initiative will lead to more support so they can continue to bring joy to their patients in creative ways.
"People are sometimes surprised to know that there's a pediatric program here," Hardin says. "We are small, but we are mighty in the things that we provide for these patients."
Eden and Hardin are collaborating to create a book nook for pediatric patients who need radiation therapy, and they are searching for book donations (contact them if you're interested) and establishing a space for the nook. They hope their effort will help parents and children connect and provide an escape from coping with childhood cancer.
Eden says the earliest recipients of her gold shoes, her patients, have been excited to wear them, and another 100 are in the works.
Whether they are handing kids a glittering pair of sneakers or a new book, Eden and her team have a special message for their young patients:
"You are part of our team, and we are part of yours, and we are always going to be with you even if you're not here getting treatment. You have been through this journey, and you deserve to be seen and lifted up.'"
Tags: Staff Stories