Henna Artist Gives Cancer Patients Crowns Of Beauty

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The air was filled with potential that Monday morning in March. University of Florida student Jeena Kar was traveling to a place she’d never seen, a neighborhood north of Orlando where modern, seductive homes surrounded simpler ones.

She was meeting a stranger. She hoped to make a friend.

As Kar pulled into the driveway of a small yellow house, Lilia Lima waited inside. Her head was bare.

Kar wore a simple hoodie and had secured her long, dark hair back in a loose bun. She carried a bag casually slung over her shoulder.

Inside were four henna cones, one pair of scissors and a cloth.

As Lima led Kar through her home, she shared with the 21-year-old student how she chose the location for their project.

The completed henna design on Lilia Lima's head is entirely free-handed by artist and pre-med student Jeena Karr. Safe, beautiful and fresh, the art gives cancer patients like Lima a new way to feel beautiful.
The completed henna design on Lilia Lima’s head is entirely free-handed by artist and UF pre-med student Jeena Kar. The art gives cancer patients a new way to feel beautiful. Photo courtesy of Jeena Kar.

If the backyard of the yellow house were to be Lima’s heaven, nature would certainly, she said, be her God. It was to here that Lima retreated during times of despair. And it was to here that she brought Kar, an artist, to paint her crown.

While Kar unpacked the henna cones, Lima pried open the porch umbrella. Protecting her sensitive skin had become a habit.

“Is there any specific design you want?” Kar asked.

Lima waved her hand, giving Kar creative freedom.

Kar cut off the tip of a cone. A strong eucalyptus scent filled the air. She rolled the shiny plastic in her hands, squeezing a bit to make sure the paste flowed smoothly.

“I’m going to start here,” she said quietly, positioning her hands above Lima’s ear.

She squeezed a cool trail of dark paste into a swirl. Kar leaned forward, focused, and let the design on Lima’s bald head unfold.

Arts And Medicines

There is a tradition of being a doctor in Kar’s family, which was exactly why she ran from it. She didn’t think there was a place for her in medicine, so she decided to study religion at the University of Florida.

But when her brother, Sunny, finished year two of medical school, his stories changed from drowning in science to working with people.

Kar found herself reconsidering what it meant to connect science with living. Taking Spirituality and Creativity in Healthcare in Fall 2014 cinched it.

Kar volunteered with a club, Heal The World, in 2013. Their Relay for Life sponsor child was Lilian, a young cancer patient who lost her hair during chemotherapy treatments.

Lilian’s favorite princess was Rapunzel. She was obsessed with hair.

“When you’re a fully grown woman and you lose your hair, it psychologically does things to you,” Kar said. “The older you get, the more society ingrains in you that your worth is based on your beauty.”

She thought about how this young child had already been affected by a culture that commodifies beauty. She made the connection.

Kar would do her henna tattoos on cancer patients on their hands, but more specifically, on their beautiful, bare heads.

She called them crowns.

Creating Connections

Gaining approval for unconventional treatments in a medical setting is difficult. Kar wanted to do her crowns on children, but liabilities forbid it.

She contacted UF Health Shands and asked to work with oncology patients. They also refused.

American doctors, unfamiliar with this ethnic technique, were wary. The patients are too sensitive, they said. You can’t touch them. And what is this henna dye?

Kar insisted the henna was safe and the ingredients are all natural. In India, it’s done on pregnant women. But Kar’s breakout came from the place it always did: her family.

In November 2014, Karr contacted family friend and oncologist Dr. Sarah Katta, who works at Southwest Cancer Center in Orlando with her father.

They invited Kar to their clinic.

“She’s very good at what she does,” said Katta. “Henna is a form of decorative art. It’s meant to enhance the beauty that is already there.”

The first patient to volunteer was a woman with stage four breast cancer, Ruth Trimble. When she saw her reflection at the end of the henna application, she cried, overwhelmed with emotion.

Kar stood behind her with the henna cones in her hands, crying too. She hadn’t expected it to have such an impact.

After that, people lined up to get their own crowns.

“It’s so intimate – you’re taking somebody’s hand, drawing these intricate patterns — in Jeena’s case, drawing on their heads,” Katta said. “There’s a definite connection.”

Katta and the other nurses noticed the change when the cancer patients returned to the clinic. They carried themselves differently – heads higher.

Trimble excitedly showed off her henna crown for weeks.

She died before she could get a second one done.

“They went through chemotherapy, which is not easy,” Katta said. “It just enhances their strength and shows us that this thing can be beat. This is wonderful, what she’s done. It’s really amazing.”

Design Beginnings

Henna comes from a flowering plant, Lawsonia inermis, grown in hot Eastern climates.

Its leaves are sun-dried, crushed into a powder and mixed with lemon juice and black tea to make a paste. The paste is rolled into cones to draw detailed designs that can stay on skin for weeks.

The art of henna has been practiced for over 5,000 years in India, Pakistan, Africa and the Middle East. Though the application and style have evolved, the beauty and intricacy of the designs never deteriorated.

Kar’s fascination with henna tattoos began at a cultural fair she attended at age 6. She headed straight to the henna artist and started asking questions.

She grew quiet when she realized the best way to learn was to watch.

Flowers and leaves bloomed. Dots and curls accentuated paisley designs, never the same twice. The artist had mixed glitter into her henna paste as a treat for the children.

Kar began practicing with cones of henna from a local ethnic store.

She said good henna art is “clean,” with straight lines and no smudges. Everything crisp.

While mess-ups can be quickly wiped off, some stain will still remain.

Henna is a celebration of beauty and love, often used at weddings and other important ceremonies. The twisting details of the designs call up feelings of culture, family and peace.

“Everyone that the bride loves — her family, her friends — have to do something,” Kar said. “It’s kind of like giving your blessing. Being a part of her henna is being a part of her wedding.”

Giving a little of that love back to cancer patients was magical, Kar said. Before, her henna art was a hobby. Now, it has a purpose. It matters.

More than Just a Patient

Many of the patients Kar works with discuss their faith and spirituality. Kar wouldn’t normally call them patients, or even clients. They’re all humans to her. Friends, and people.

“I don’t think you have to belong to a certain faith to understand what these patients are going through,” Kar said. “They’re just bonding over this idea of hope and letting go to something higher than themselves.”

Kar calls herself a Universalist; she finds a certain degree of validity in all religions. Working with cancer patients has changed her views on many things. Now, she’s considering pursuing oncology.

For Kar, spirituality, medicine and art are naturally intertwined. Her experiences are evidence of a larger social shift in medicine. The Medical College Admission Test exams have expanded psychology and sociology sections. Integrating medical care and alternative treatment has become more popular.

“There’s more of a human aspect to medicine that people don’t look at,” Kar said. “We study the humanities because it’s people we’re working with. You have to look past more than just science to see what’s going on there.”

What once was a hobby has grown steadily in the last months. While setting up sessions in hospitals is still difficult, Kar has been able to organize crowns in outpatient settings.

Her Facebook page, Design by Jeena, has 529 likes, and patients have begun coming to her without referrals.

Because I’m Beautiful

Lilia Lima, 54, was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer in November.

She has had a double mastectomy and continues with chemotherapy treatments today.

When she received her diagnosis, Lima began researching different coping techniques such as medication and herbal teas.

“Sometimes I just think I’m not real,” she said. “I try to make the journey not so heavy. I cannot change this. I have to go through what I’m going through. I try to accept.”

“And that is a little peace.”

While Kar swirled the henna on her head, Lima sipped lemongrass tea and watched the flowers and the oaks trees in her backyard – her sacred church – bend in the sun-streaked breeze. She could smell the pollen and eucalyptus from Kar’s henna cones.

Every once in a while, Lima stopped Kar to take progress pictures so she could watch the art being created.

Kar doesn’t plan her designs ahead of time. Sometimes patients ask for sideburns, bangs or other features. This time, she freestyled.

The circular design in the middle of Lima’s head fanned out with leaves, a cool, curling design rippling over her skin. Symmetric and clean, the henna created an intimate message of hope and natural growth.

Like the flowers in her backyard, Lima’s henna held meaning. Instead of people staring because she didn’t have hair, she said, things would change. Now, they stare because they see something beautiful.

About Dahlia Ghabour

Dahlia is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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