Oral histories are helping UF Health patients heal

Barron Chappell, right, who has spent the last 40 plus days in the hospital with a kidney condition, talks with Barbara Esring, left, a writer in residence with the UF Health Shands Hospital Arts in Medicine program, at UF Health Cancer Center, in Gainesville on Friday. Esring, a hospital representative of Story Corp, recorded Chappell's life story on the "National Day of Listening."

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, November 29, 2013 at 5:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 29, 2013 at 5:44 p.m.

Barron Chappell begins his artwork by folding a white sheet of paper in half, then smoothing the crease with the back of a paintbrush. Then he opens the paper, dots both halves with different colored paints, folds the paper back together, and makes lines on it with the back of the paintbrush.

When Chappell opens the paper up again, the magic happens: birds, angels, butterflies, and even skulls and elephant tusks appear to whomever views Chappell's final creations.

Asked what he himself sees in each of the 50 or so pieces of "squish art" that line the walls of his hospital room at the UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital, Chappell said, "I see something different every time I look at them."

"Half the time they end up looking like things in my dreams," and things that can do things that he can't like fly, he said.

A week shy of 21, Chappell, a native of Umatilla, has been in and out of hospitals since he was 8 years old. That's when he was diagnosed with a kidney condition called nephrotic syndrome.

"I spent half my life in there," Chappell said Friday from his hospital room.

He and his friends in the pediatric unit — the "gang of three" — have made the hospital their second home — running down to Wendy's when staff would let them, turning cartwheels in the hallway, making water guns out of saline syringes.

And, making art.

Art instructor Mary Lisa Kitakis-Spano of the hospital's Arts in Medicine Program taught Chappell how to make squish art.

"Art kept me occupied so I wouldn't go crazy going bored," he said.

Chappell recounted his story about making art on Friday afternoon to UF Health writer-in-residence Barbara Esrig, who collects oral histories from patients as part of their healing process.

Friday marked the National Day of Listening, an initiative of StoryCorp, a national oral history project that started a decade ago.

The idea for the Day of Listening is that people across the country interview each other — and that sharing stories is both a meaningful and inexpensive gift — as well as a worthwhile alternative to "Black Friday" shopping.

Information on StoryCorp and a free, do-it-yourself guide to interviewing is at the website http://nationaldayoflistening.org/

"There's an art to listening," Esrig said. "It's healing. We're not therapists, but we use modalities that are therapeutic. It's important for patients to feel creative."

Esrig knows this first-hand: After suffering a near-fatal car accident 16 years ago, the arts were important in her own healing process. People decorated her IV pole, and danced in her room, she said. They made her laugh.

"I wasn't just seen as another MVA (motor vehicle accident) in room 461," said Esrig, who is a psychiatric nurse and midwife by training.

She is also a published writer, and when she got out of the hospital, she decided to help heal people with her skills as an artist, so she joined the Arts in Medicine Program.

Part of Esrig's own healing process was making an oral history account of her accident and near-death experience, which traveled around the country to various exhibits.

After doing her own story, "I knew in every hospital room there was a story," she said.

In the hospital's Arts in Medicine wing are several thick binders with patients' stories bearing testimony to Esrig's instinct.

Esrig often begins by asking patients if they know the history of their surnames. "It's sort of a door that opens. It starts getting people to think about how they're connected to other people," she said. She'll ask about their childhoods, their homes, their kitchens and favorite home-cooked meals.

One subject that she notably avoids is the reason why they are in the hospital.

"When patients start with their diagnosis, I stop them. I tell them, 'You can tell that to every single person in the hospital,' " she said. She wants to hear about the person outside the hospital. The storytelling is often uplifting to patients, and can be distracting from their pain, she said.

On Friday, she asked Chappell primarily about his art, and in the process, other parts of his life emerged that undoubtedly inform his art: How he's the spitting image of his father — and how both share a photographic memory.

Chappell said he never forgets a face and thinks naturally in numbers and shapes.

That shows in his artwork, but Chappell is modest about the source of his inspiration.

"The paint has a mind of its own," he continued. "I can only smear it in the direction that it wants to go."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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