"I forgot that I was in pain." Latisha, a Sickle Cell Anemia patient, said these exact words to her nurse as she turned down more medication. The nurse was shocked and so was I. We were using oil pastels and watercolor that day as I worked with her one on one in her hospital room, as an art volunteer. The small table tray was pulled in toward her bed, and she sat up focusing intently on her artwork of a silouhette singer performing in front of a crowd.
I walked out of Latisha's room that day with a huge question and an even bigger paradigm shift. Why would art cause a person to stop feeling physical pain? That was never on my mind or my intention when I decided to bring art to young patients at Sacred Heart Children's Hospital. I simply wanted to share some fun, inspiring activities that might help the time pass, and reduce the stress that taxes entire families when a loved one is suffering in the hospital.
NOTIONS AND TRUTH
My crazy, spontaneous idea to work with kids at the children's hospital came to me while I was in the shower. I had this Pollyanna, rainbow colored vision of a bunch of smiling kids crowded around me in a beautiful sunlit room as I taught a lesson. In my mind, they were all excited and eager to learn in their little nightgowns. It was a laughable, ridiculous vision, and a few weeks later a cold bucket of reality was poured over my head. Pollyanna woke up. Kids in the hospital are scared, miserable, and in pain. Their siblings are often bored and their parents are experiencing fear and exhaustion. The bright side though, was that I learned a lot from my cold bucket of reality. I learned that instead of just being a teacher, I was also considered a counselor, companion, and a healer of sorts.
IT'S NOT ALWAYS PRETTY
The biggest lesson I've learned about arts and healing is that it's not all about creating something beautiful for others to enjoy. It's also about intense release, introspection, processing events, and plain old learning. In Izzy's case though, art was her reward. Izzy was around 11 years old and had a neurological disorder that caused her entire body to shake when she did anything physical, including holding a brush or pen. She had been told by the staff that if she could walk to the art room by herself that she could participate. It was meant as in incentive to get her up and moving without too much assistance. I had a room full of kids around the same age that day and we were working on a butterfly project that involved cutting tissue paper, but when I saw her I knew we'd have to do something completely different, without too much detail. Thank God for Da Vinci. Leonardo Da Vinci wasn't only known for his awe inspiring portraits, but also for finding faces in the cracks of a stone wall, a phenomenon called Pareidolia. I instructed her to simply put her marker on her paper and move it in a way that felt natural to her until she felt like she was done. Then she looked for images in her scribble drawing and filled the spaces in with color. As a result, Izzy was able to create something she was satisfied with, because it didn't need to look like anything others would approve of. She enjoyed the process and left the room in a better mood than when she entered. The best part was when she smiled thanked me for helping her.
PARENTS NEED ART TOO
I had a chance to share art with numerous, countless individuals over the course of two years, including parents. On one occasion, I worked with a man named Joe and his 6 year old son. Joe's son had recently been diagnosed with diabetes, a disease that can wreak havoc on families. He and his son sat with me as we worked with clay. In the beginning, Joe was pretty silent as he worked intensely on building his boy a tractor. As he worked though, he slowly began to talk to me and his vulnerability spoke volumes. He was scared. He was scared his son would die. It was if he was pushing his emotions into the clay and as he pushed, he released his fear. These were the days I began to live for, and were the days I would go home and cry out of compassion, and out of gratitude that someone would trust me enough to share their fears. I would also cry because it could have easily been my own son, or my husband, and I was witnessing just one more possibility that this life spared us for the moment.
If you've never been called a Fart Bag by an eight year old with Downs Syndrome I highly recommend finding a way to make that happen. I'm sort of kidding but not really. First of all, you'll be reminded that life just can't be serious all the time, even in a hospital. Second, it's hilarious. In fact I now have another sentence enhancer to add to my library of vocabulary. I use it on my son when he uses up all the ice and doesn't refill the trays. He happens to think it's pretty funny but it still gets the point across. The day I met Colton he immediately called me a Fart Bag and proceeded to dump glitter everywhere and make it look like a unicorn threw up all over the table. Before I knew it he had not only squeezed most of a bottle of glue onto his paper, but somehow ended up wearing most of it. The phenomenon of glitter is that it likes to stick to everything. Colton ended up wearing most of it, and his overwhelmed mother, just sighed, laughed and shook her head. Colton had cancer. When your child has cancer and wants to have a little fun, you let him, because you just never know just how long that possibility will exist. To see them smile, even when calling the art lady a Fart Bag, is pretty special.
The jury is still out on whether art therapy can actually heal the physical body, but one thing has been agreed upon by doctors. When a person spends time focusing on one's pain it can seem like that's all there is. Stress and pain can perpetuate one another. When Latisha was fully engaged by her painting, she became gloriously distracted and "forgot" about her disease and the pain it brought.
We live in a world of give and take. There are days when I look back on my time as an art volunteer and wonder how it all happened. If I'd just hesitated a moment longer, dried off and not ran out to my phone, dripping water all over the house, or if I'd questioned my seemingly idealistic vision for two extra minutes, maybe I wouldn't have those experiences. I wouldn't have the excruciating sadness seeing children sick and in pain, but I also wouldn't have the joy of remembering that at least one young woman forgot she was in pain because of some pastels and watercolor.