Borrowing from the ancient Japanese legend that promises good luck and healing to those who fold 1,000 origami cranes, the UC Davis Department of Radiation Oncology is now festooned with the tiny paper birds.

The crane-folding project was introduced to the busy cancer center clinic by oncology nurse Terri Wolf, who had learned of the custom from a Japanese friend.

Origami cranes at Radiation Oncology © UC Regents 2010
Underneath a flock of origami cranes are, from left, Kelly Johnson, Kerri Stuart, Terri Wolf and Susan Lentz.

"All I did was fold the first crane," she said. "Everyone in the department got involved -- academic faculty, clinical staff, receptionists and therapists."

Making a paper crane requires 25 folds and, once mastered, takes about five minutes.

In addition to their beauty, the cranes, and the efforts to make them, became a healthy distraction that has proven beneficial for both patients and staff, she said.

"Patients come in ask about them, and it gives us a chance to tell them the story and to get to know them a little better," she said. "Sometimes, I would sit in the exam room and show them how to make a crane. It would give me time to talk to them, and it was relaxing for the patient."

The crane legend was made famous in the book "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes," a story about Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who got leukemia as a result of radiation exposure after the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II. As the story goes, she folded 644 cranes before her death in 1955. In the book's version of events, her friends completed the cranes and buried all thousand cranes with her.

Many radiation oncology patients and family members have contributed to the crane-making project, including a 10-year-old who filled a grocery sack full of cranes in support of her cousin, a patient. Staff members also took part. The department's receptionist, Margie Carrillo, brought the paper home and spent the weekend with her children making cranes.

Crane-making featured prominently at this year's Cancer Survivors' Picnic, where volunteers taught all-comers the origami art.