Painting children at Shands: an artist's ‘act of compassion'
Published: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 12:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 12:11 p.m.
Clad in a hospital gown and hooked to an IV drip, the girl seemed to be asleep. A family member brushed her long, brown hair while another painted her toenails.
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
The Arts in Medicine program at Shands at UF was co-founded by Dr. John Graham-Pole in 1991 to help the hospital staff find a creative way to deal with grief from pediatric patient death.
Graham-Pole, who wrote poetry in his spare time, soon expanded the program to include bone-marrow patients and then other long-term patients and their families. Arts in Medicine is now a multidisciplinary organization that includes activities in the visual, literary, contemplative and performing arts, according to the website.
A 2006 observational study of the Arts in Medicine program in an outpatient hemodialysis unit showed patients who participated the most in the art activities felt a greater positive impact on their health. Scientifically, they had improved quality-of-life, laboratory and hemodialysis measures.
Going to see a bone-marrow patient was not the way artist Mary Lisa Kitakis-Spano thought her life was going to change. “I don't even like the hospital,” she said.
A friend of hers who was a nurse invited her to meet a patient and get acquainted with the new Arts in Medicine program in 1991.
As she peered through a tiny window into the room of the patient, staring back at her was a small 7-year-old girl clad in bunny slippers and tethered to a chemo pole. The girl jumped up and down at seeing a face that didn't belong to a doctor.
“I took out my extra T-shirts and paints, and we just started drawing,” she said, wiping her eyes. “The Arts in Medicine program is a blessing and some of the most rewarding work I do. For me, it was the beginning of actually discovering art.”
The program has expanded to parts of California and Nova Scotia and has been featured in several publications.
Off to the side, Reyna Collura sat with them for hours, sketching and talking to the girl, who survived an accident in Miami but was now in a deep coma.
“She looks so peaceful and relaxed,” Collura recalls telling the girl’s mother. “Is that how you want me to paint her?”
“No,” the mother told her. “I don’t want a portrait of my daughter in a coma. I want you to paint her how she was when she was awake.”
For Collura, finding beauty amid heartbreak is a calling.
An illustrator in the Arts in Medicine program at Shands at the University of Florida, she developed the Fantasy Portraits program, where she paints portraits of pediatric inpatients. She depicts them any way they would like.
“I had heard of photographers who do glamour shots of cancer patients, and I wanted to turn that into something I knew,” she said. “The best thing about it is that it’s your own 8-by-10 world.”
By its very nature, Collura’s artistry is heart-wrenching. One of her toughest moments, she recalled, was drawing a portrait of a baby she knew was not going to survive.
“The mother had twins, but one wasn’t going to make it,” she said. “She knew it was going to be a memorial painting, a tribute to her 1-year-old son.”
The child died around the time Collura finished the portrait. She went to the room from which the baby had just been taken away to give the portrait to the mother.
“She took one look at it and threw her arms around me and started crying. She didn’t say anything.’’
Collura, 28, created the Fantasy Portraits program on a whim to get a job at Arts in Medicine and has worked there since 2009.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in illustration from the University of Wisconsin and a master’s degree in illustration from Savannah College of Art and Design.
When she does portraits, Collura begins by meeting the patients and chatting with them about their interests, which always vary. Her works have included the Incredible Hulk, a fashionista with a Labrador and a gourmet chef who owns a restaurant for dogs.
Collura prefers acrylic paints because they are faster to work with, and any portrait usually takes her four to five weeks from start to finish.
The main goal of her portraits is affirmation for her patients.
“I think it’s important to remind the patient how awesome they are, especially since they have very limited control,” she said. “The portraits show what makes them unique, and that they’re not just a number in a hospital.”
At Shands, she does crafts, teaches workshops and runs therapy sessions. Her latest endeavor is to mentor and train the A-Team, a group of student interns who are able to work independently with patients. The A-Team receives calls from all over the hospital asking for help with staff or patients.
“It can include anything from dropping off a coloring bag and CDs, to sketching and talking with a patient,” she said. “We’re trying to do something no one else is doing, and this helps us think of new ideas and not keep doing the same formula.”
Collura said she most enjoys the ripple effect her work has on children, their parents and the staff who take care of the patient. She said she’s proud of the unique ideas the artists bring to the program that has become her home.
“I think the hardest thing I would ever have to do would be to leave the Arts in Medicine program,” she said. “If I do, I want to be remembered as someone who was respectful, thoughtful and made the hospital stay pleasant.”
Madeline Austin, an artist who has been in the program since 1999, said her first impression of Collura was a “quiet person who had this lovely energy.”
“Everybody loves her,” she said. “I have many patients who always ask, ‘Do you think she can come back?’ Her visits mean a lot to them.”
Austin said Collura is a versatile artist whose work helps patients of all ages.
“If you were sick, and all you saw in the mirror was that you had no hair, imagine how you would feel. Now imagine if you could see yourself as not sick and surrounded by horses,” she said. “Reyna helps reflect this beautiful image of what we wish to be. She’s a pure artist, which is the highest compliment I can give anyone.”
It was Austin who suggested Collura do the portrait of the young girl in a coma.
Although the work was difficult and took an emotional toll on Collura, Austin said she thought Collura handled the situation professionally and continued to do the portrait regardless.
Mary Lisa Katakis-Spano, a visual artist at Arts in Medicine who has worked with Collura for three years on everything from snowflakes to personalized holiday mailboxes, described her as a funny, compassionate and hard-working person whose artwork stood out from other applicants.
She, too, was struck by how Collura handled the portrait of the coma patient.
“I was most impressed with Reyna’s ability to connect with the mother and share stories about her daughter, all the while not knowing if her child was going to survive the coma,” Katakis-Spano said.
“You want to do something that will help or support them when you can do nothing. It’s an act of compassion.”
The day finally came when Collura’s portrait of the young girl was completed. She hoped she had captured the idea in the mother’s imagination.
“Her mom and I came up with this portrait idea of several hands on her shoulders of all the people she cared about,” Collura said.
“She was a very community-driven, kind and caring spirit, so I painted several words in English and Spanish that related to that.”
When she went to the girl’s room to deliver the painting, Collura learned from a co-worker that the girl had been discharged to a hospital for long-term coma patients.
“I had no idea if she would ever wake up to see the picture I had painted of her,” she said.
She took the painting to the family — and found a miracle.
“I got there, and she was awake,” she said. “She had recently come out of the coma. It seemed almost like she recognized me.”
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