Our visit to the Kálida center, on the grounds of the Hospital de Sant Pau in Barcelona, is led by an exceptional cicerone: Rosy Williams, one of the main driving forces behind the project. Kálida is part of the international network of Maggie's Centres, focused on providing free emotional and practical support not only to cancer patients, but also to their families and friends.
We reach the center on an afternoon in late May, just two weeks after it opened. A few traces of construction work are still in view –such as the plastic tape surrounding the metal structure of the pergola that will shade the garden– remind us of how recent the building actually is.
Rosy is an approachable, welcoming woman who speaks softly so as not to disrupt the peaceful atmosphere in the space, although at the time we visit, only a couple of staff members are still there.
So far, Kálida's success has been extraordinary: over these first two weeks, more than four hundred people have come to the center. Although, as Rosy points out, "only at the Hospital de Sant Pau, about 3,300 new cases are diagnosed every year, and close to 40,000 in all of Catalonia." Therefore, Kálida's success is hardly surprising, because the center conveys a sense of serenity.
A Maggie's Centre in Barcelona?
Rosy is Scottish, and several years ago, when she was already living in Barcelona, she was diagnosed with cancer. That summer she went back to Scotland to get a second opinion. She heard about Maggie's and went to visit one of its centers in Edinburgh. "I didn't know what to expect. Edinburgh wasn't even the city where I was living, yet I found unconditional support," she says. Rosy was struck not only by the place –a placid, cozy cottage of sorts– but also by the staff's generosity. "They aren't only generous in terms of their time. When you walk in, they manage to give you the impression that, at that moment, you're the only person who matters."
After returning to Barcelona for treatment, she started looking for some of the elements that had been such a source of comfort at Maggie's. But it wasn't until several years later, says Rosy, that “one day I woke up and said, 'It's obvious, Barcelona is perfect for a Maggie's Centre!' The city had it all: medical excellence, major hospitals, research in oncology and biotechnology, plus architecture and design [...]. I was also truly impressed by the fact that, as early as 1902, Domènech i Montaner already had the vision that the environment –the surroundings– had a direct impact on the healing process." The hospital's management team, the oncologists, and the private foundation all showed interest in the project, but then, when they were hit by the 2008 economic crisis, everything came to a standstill. After thirteen years of perseverance, the Kálida center finally came to life in May 2019. "I can't quite believe it yet," Rosy admits.
Recovering a human scale
Rosy tells us that the center's philosophy is based on the idea that each cancer patient can recover the sense of being a person. Because a cancer diagnosis gives the person receiving it, and their close circle, a sense of complete loss of control. "The treatment and the doctor's appointments determine everything, but you don't only have cancer. You have the rest of your life, too [...]. Nowadays, hospitals look like airports, and that's because they have to process a huge number of people as efficiently as possible. What we're trying to do here is bring things back to a human scale by creating a home-like atmosphere. [...] At the hospital, you're a patient, but when you come here, you're a person again."
Within that goal of reconciliation and comfort, the role of architecture is critical. In this organic, introspective building that is also open, connected with its surrounding garden area, everything contributes to a holistic reencounter. "The space is an enormous help, because when someone comes here and relaxes, any conversation is much more effective; that person is more willing to talk, to voice questions, uncertainties and emotions. [...] A cancer diagnosis brings out other things in your life that may not be going well, and often things come up that are hard to discuss with family members, so people need an outlet."
Professionals specializing in psycho-oncology, social work, and oncology nursing try to fulfill these emotional and practical needs. "Relaxation groups, for example, are, to some extent, psychoeducational, something you can work into your daily life, but at a subtler level they are also a form of self-help. The kind of help that creates a community and provides security and a sense of protection –because, in fact, each individual, be they a caregiver or another person, shares a bit of what you're experiencing, and that's very important, too."
Evening is fast approaching, and we have been almost whispering the whole time. It's surprising how this atmosphere of time standing still has gradually immersed us in a state of inner peace. We say goodbye to Rosy and walk out, feeling somewhat forlorn at having to head out into the street and face the noisy world.
Photography 1-2: Jorge de Jorge Jordán
Photography 3: Roberto Ramos