She found comfort and ease in the manipulation of clay, in gliding the tip of her sharp tool through the soft surface to carve swoops of rushing rivers forging and warping the dry ground ahead.

“I needed clay. I needed some art.”

Ceramicist Tara Heinzen has found healing — and herself — in slabs of moist clay. After a double mastectomy and 13 subsequent surgeries, she learned that the cells in her body and their genetic determination were forces she couldn’t restrain.

Clay then became the thing she could control and an outlet where she could process and express herself with every chisel and motion. Clay was pliable. She could influence it. It helped her navigate her own revealing health journey.

“I just carved. I felt like I needed to do rivers. I needed to go with the flow and accept what was happening. I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t change it. I couldn’t make my body do something different,” Heinzen said.

It was these emotions, both deep and raw, that led Heinzen to want to work with Adventist Health Lodi Memorial, where she has been a patient, when the hospital’s medical officer, Dr. Patricia Iris, approached her about creating ceramic tiles. Her pieces, she learned, would serve as awards to caregivers working on 11 quality improvement teams that the hospital was launching, called Rapid Cycle Improvement (RCI) Projects, in areas ranging from patient experience to diabetes care.

Heinzen was inspired, knowing that each of these projects would ultimately affect the care and healing of patients just like her.

Her inspiration grew as she visited the hospital’s lush Healing Garden, where she wandered through one balmy spring afternoon in search of local, natural elements that might resonate with the employees who walk through the garden every day. She photographed ruby red camellias in full bloom, maple leaves the color of ripening limes and lavender bursting with fragrance from the garden’s second tier. She was lured in by the fountain and the details of the space that is often used by patients, family members and hospital employees.

“I tried to capture the movement and the lines in the architecture of the design of the Healing Garden itself,” she said of one of the designs that shows an almost-aerial view of the garden encapsulated by the four sides of the medical center.

Sitting at her table sculpting and molding each unique tile, she thought of the garden’s stories — of the therapy patients who prune herbs and succulents as part of their recovery, the family members taking a breath after learning of loved ones’ diagnoses and the caregivers who step off the floors for a moment of reprieve and a dose of nature.

“As I carved, I kept thinking, ‘how many people went through there, how many people were grieving or questioning.’ It’s giving me chills to think about everything. That experience was healing for me,” said Heinzen from her garage studio, surrounded by shelves of ceramic bowls and sculptures that each tell their own story.

Heinzen started the hospital project with a large block of clay, and made slices for each tile she would eventually press into her hand-crafted mold before firing and glazing. Every step was a process, and she navigated through the often-temperamental voyage of making the fire of the kiln align with the heat that had emerged in the valley that week in April.

The process offered her a reflection of her years, through her own experiences as a patient. She’d had a double mastectomy, eliminating her fear that breast cancer could come back. But her body wouldn’t heal, and it required more surgeries. Her daughter and two sons went through years of worrying about their sick, bed-ridden mother, caring for her and caring for themselves in many ways. The control she lacked was found when a friend rolled out small clay slabs that she could easily sit and carve. She had no say over scar tissue and worries of infection or phone calls from doctors telling her they wanted to start her breast reconstruction from scratch. But she could emulate her feelings through that rich, earthy clay, through experimenting with light, color, texture, flow and the pressure from her fingers.

What began as a commissioned project for the hospital turned into an unexpected reservoir of emotional awareness. As she worked late through the night to perfect the 30 tiles, she pondered why the project felt so important to her.

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve gained through this is a realization of my life purpose and mission,” she said. “I realized it’s not about me, it’s not about my story; it’s about a story, of healing, it could be anyone’s.”

For Heinzen, the project became about connecting a story of healing to the RCI awards as a beautiful reminder of how much the caregivers on these teams do, how their healing ministry affects lives beyond the medical process.

“I knew Tara was the right artist to partner with us on these important projects because she, as a patient, is an example of why our providers, nurses and support team dedicate their lives to this profession,” said Dr. Patricia Iris, Adventist Health Lodi Memorial’s medical officer, who is leading the RCI training program. “Not only has she had her own healing process relatable to our work in the hospital, she was passionate about bringing connection to these pieces … all with love and intention.”

The final pieces reveal those images that stayed with her from the healing garden: The blooming red camellia, the rosemary, the maple leaf and the aerial view of the garden. The completed tiles were awarded to the sepsis and diabetes teams for outstanding improvement at a graduation for the RCI projects on May 3 at Hutchins Street Square. Heinzen’s work was a surprise to the teams, and she hopes that her pieces will inspire each caregiver.

“Maybe it will be a reminder that at the core of what they do at the hospital, it all comes down to connection. Connection to God, spirit, earth, each other, the cells in our body,” Heinzen said. “That’s how the world will heal, how communities heal, how people heal.”

Heinzen spoke to more than 100 hospital leaders and caregivers just before her handmade awards were given to the recipients. As she shared her story, pausing to hold back tears, many in the audience also wiped tears.

After, many of the team members thanked Heinzen for her beautiful words and for showing them how their clinical work changes lives.

“What you said — your story — that brought this whole project full circle,” said Lisa Donati, RN, the hospital’s clinical information systems director. “You reminded us why we do what we do.”

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