She pauses, paint marker in hand, and asks: “Can you put in there how wonderful everybody is?”
Lauren lived with cancer for 8 years. What’s astonishing is how much she accomplished and how deeply she touched those around her. She donated her hair to Locks of Love, which provides wigs for cancer patients, and volunteered as a counselor with Camp Fantastic, a summer camp for kids with cancer. She was an active participant with Special Love, a group dedicated to helping young people suffering from pediatric cancers. After completing her master’s degree at Frostburg State University, she taught science at Mother Catherine Spalding School in Mechanicsville, Md., and coached volleyball at St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Leonardtown, Md. And she married her college sweetheart, who stuck with her through all her treatments.
At left, Annette Weller, a self-taught artist, shows a monkey tree she painted on a Clinical Center window. At right, a coral tree memorializes Weller’s daughter Lauren, who spent 8 years on NIH protocols before succumbing to Ewing’s sarcoma in 2011.
Photos: Belle Waring, Annette Weller
Before Lauren passed away, she asked her mother to start a fundraiser to bring the families of pediatric patients to the CC.
“NIH brings the child and one caregiver,” says Weller. “We want to bring ’em all.” So Lauren’s legacy now includes “L-Dub’s Love,” a non-profit group dedicated to assisting and providing resources to families of children receiving cancer treatment.
And Lauren loved music. Along with other patients being treated at the CC, in 2011 she accompanied NIH director Dr. Francis Collins in a special outing to a U2 concert in Baltimore.
“The kids loved her,” says Dr. Lori Wiener, NCI’s director of psychosocial support and research. “Lauren mobilized, energized and inspired so many children with cancer over the years. She would put her own issues to the side…‘Tell me about you, and how are you today,’ is how she started every conversation. She touched so many people along the way with her smile, energy and warmth…She never gave up hope.”
Wiener’s role is to support patients and their families during their time at NIH and beyond. Her clinical research includes patient and family mental health, loss and bereavement, staff wellness and interventions—like art—designed to meet the needs of critically ill children and their families.
“There are no adequate words to describe the pain and suffering when a parent has lost a child,” she says. Yet art can offer a way to express the indescribable. During Lauren’s last inpatient stay, Wiener offered Weller a basket of window paint markers, saying, “Annette, if you are so inclined…”
“I’m not a painter,” says Weller, now retired from the postal service, “but I had this tree in my head. So I said what the heck.”
She painted a glow-in-the-dark tree on the window of Lauren’s room in the CC. With 15 critters in its branches, it was dubbed “the Tree of Life.”
“I thought they would wash it off,” she says.
Instead, it would become the first of many. The staff did not forget Lauren or her mother’s Tree of Life; they had gone through years of changes together, the ups and downs, developmental milestones, birthdays and graduations. After Lauren died, one of the 1NW nurses started a bereavement task force, looking for ways to make the unit more comforting, homelike and interactive for families. She remembered how the kids loved the tree—it made them and their families feel less isolated.
There was real comfort in the image, and Wiener, once a semi-professional photographer, had an eye for that connection. So she contacted Weller and asked if she might be willing to return to
NIH as a special volunteer.
Weller and her daughter Lauren, who inspired many
children with cancer during her years of treatment.
“We talked about trees symbolized by [their]
branches,” says Wiener, “all the different directions
[they] can grow, all that trees can carry.”
With a good friend for support, Weller returned
to the CC and, on the window of the room nextdoor
to the one where her daughter died, she
drew the outline of a new tree. So she didn’t have
to feel alone, her friend and Wiener helped by filling
As the project grew, the trees captured the kids’
attention. When a young boy was transferred
from “the room with the owl tree” to “the room
with the monkey tree,” he wanted the staff to put
the owl tree in his new room, says Weller. “So I
met with him and placed an owl in the monkey
tree. Got a big smile out of him.”
She also met with another child who was preparing
for a transplant. “He requested penguins…
that was how the penguin tree came
about,” she recalls. “I painted it the day before
his transplant. He was very sick that day, but
was really happy about the window.”
And now, as natural light filters into the rooms,
it gives these windows the uplifting beauty
of stained glass. This is fitting, because Lauren’s
faith was essential to her, says Wiener.
“She believed that there would be a tomorrow
where she would be joined with those she loved.”
Through an advance care planning guide that
Lauren helped create, she worked hard to prepare
those she loved for life after she was gone. The
guide, based on the findings of an NCI clinical
protocol, is now available worldwide.
“And she understood why today could be beautiful,”
“Lauren participated in many NIH studies,” she
continues. “She helped advance science and perhaps
even more importantly, she advanced a dignified
way to live with cancer.”
Her mother continues Lauren’s legacy of hope
and service. “It’s really cathartic,” she said. “It
helps me say goodbye a little bit more every time
I do one.”