Twenty years ago, Patricia Petersen was struck with osteomyelitis. The active wife and mother, who was enjoying a hectic life raising two young children and working as an OR nurse, was suddenly hospitalized and had to remain bedridden for the next five months. One incident during this dark time lifted her spirits: “I will never forget the day the nurse, who had so much to do, took out my cosmetics kit and did my makeup – the look on my family’s faces, when they saw me with color!”
That nurse’s act of kindness many years ago accounts for much of Petersen’s commitment to the Look Good Feel Better (LGFB) Program today. As a volunteer with the non-profit organization, she teaches cancer patients to manage the appearance-related side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
“Makeup is the medium to bring collective groups [of patients] together,” says Petersen. She enjoys the energy of a noisy room: “Sometimes there’s a lot of crying. Sometimes there’s a lot of laughing. Usually we laugh and cry.”
The Persuasive Power of Makeup
“As a healthcare worker, I have always felt that we fixed the part that didn’t work and sent you home to cope with the rest,” says Petersen, who has been nursing for 30 years. For cancer patients living in a society obsessed with appearances, coping with the outside world can be particularly difficult. So in 1994, when Petersen (who had experience selling Mary Kay cosmetics) heard about LGFB, she lobbied the head of the program to bring it to her own city of Lethbridge, Alberta. Her don’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude paid off, and, in September 1995, LGFB workshops began in the basement of the Lethbridge Regional Hospital.
Patients who participate in LGFB attend a free two-hour session, during which a professional cosmetician teaches them how to apply makeup, and a wig specialist demonstrates the use of hair alternatives – such as hats and turbans – in addition to wigs. Petersen’s role as team leader is twofold: she keeps volunteers up-to-date on the physical side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and she counsels patients about hair, skin, and nail care. She also volunteers her time (outside of the LGFB program) to provide one-on-one sessions for men as well as for women who are too ill to attend.
Not all patients come voluntarily; sometimes, Petersen notes, they are “dragged” there by family members or friends. “Some, who have never worn makeup, go the whole nine yards, while others just sit there with their arms crossed against their chests and won’t open their box [of cosmetics].” Petersen describes a one-on-one session with an 18-year-old patient: “He was mad, disgusted, and annoyed and said, ‘I’m not putting this crap on my face.’ I told him he didn’t have to. After thinking about it, he asked, ‘Do you have anything that can help me?’ I said, ‘Yes, let me show you.'” He made Petersen take off all her makeup, and together they did each of their faces. “When he saw his face, he cried. He put his cap on, and when his mom came, it was really, really neat,” says Petersen, her voice choking with emotion as she finishes the story.
Petersen is as passionate a nursing advocate as she is a patient advocate. For the past three years, she has been a part-time clinical instructor for Lethbridge Community College. In this role, she takes nursing students through two-day rotations in the OR of the Lethbridge Regional Hospital, where she is on staff. Her work with students has prompted her to lobby nursing schools to include more training in the specialized areas where there are staff shortages: the ER, OR, and ICU.
Now that her sons are grown, and her lawyer husband feels confident he can take care of himself, Petersen is ready to tackle another of the items on her list of “100 Things to Do in Life.” She has recently started a contract in Saudi Arabia, and, true to her character, she has brought her LGFB information with her.