The Gift of Courage

March 15, 2011

Throughout human history, beads have played many roles, from functioning as money to holding prayers. As deep as the anthropological theory behind beads might be, Jean Baruch, who recently completed her Ph.D. in nursing at the University of Arizona, sums it up in a simple statement: “Every bead is a gift.”

Along with having earned her doctorate, Baruch, classes of ’97 and ’10, is a pediatric oncology nurse, wife, mom, and all-around human dynamo. She founded and directs Beads of Courage, Inc., an innovative arts-in-medicine program that supports children coping with serious illness, as well as their families and health care providers. She first developed the idea while working on her doctorate.

“I love the UA”, she says. “The caliber of the nursing professors and clinical nursing practice was amazing; I know that I had an exceptional educational experience.” Baruch credits much of her success and clear direction to people like Dr. Pam Reed, who teaches courses in the philosophy of nursing, and Dr. Terry Badger, her dissertation chair who pushed her so hard.

“They gave me a broader idea of how and why we’re doing this,” she says. “They made me a better person, professionally and in the community.” Baruch not only took those lessons to heart, but has built her life’s work around them.

What started as Baruch’s doctoral dissertation later became Beads of Courage, Inc. When children with serious illnesses enter a hospital with the program, they begin receiving colored beads for each milestone in their treatment: a red bead for a blood transfusion; a white bead for chemotherapy; a brown bead for hair loss; a glow-in-the-dark bead for radiation treatment. For an especially difficult or painful procedure, a child might receive a hand-made bead donated by a glass artist. Over time, as a their strand grows, the child not only has something tangible to show for what they have been through, but they can use that string as a way to re-tell and take ownership of their experience.

Baruch piloted the program in February 2004 at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Today, building on her tireless work, Beads of Courage is now helping over 15,000 children in over 70 hospitals across 32 states. They also have programs in hospitals in Japan and New Zealand.  

Lizzie Bell of Tucson, Arizona is one of those patients here at home who has benefited from Baruch’s vision. Born with Diamond-Blackfan anemia, Lizzie’s bone marrow does not produce red blood cells. She is alive today only because she has been having regular transfusions of healthy blood throughout her sixteen-year lifetime.

“I’ve known Jean for a long time,” Bell says. “I’ve tried to count my beads, but my head hurt and I couldn’t finish.” Bell’s strand has over 500 red transfusion beads alone. All told, her story is over 1,500 beads long.

Today, Baruch is delving into the anthropology of gift-giving and the connections the Beads of Courage vision can build between children, families and health care professionals. While she is growing her experience and the scope of her work, her vision remains focused: it all comes down to the power of every gift of every bead.

“That reciprocal exchange is important,” Baruch explains. “Kids say they feel better cared for. Doctors, nurses and child-life specialists say that it’s something that’s been missing. It recognizes kids’ courage. The gift-giving strengthens those human bonds. It’s about the science of caring.”

Learn more about Beads of Courage 

Learn more about the UA College of Nursing 

Watch the CBS Sunday Morning feature about Beads of Courage and Jean Baruch that aired in December 2010.