Radiation mask

 Much of our time working with children with cancer and other life-altering diseases is spent trying to transform thoughts and experiences that are challenging and really scary into something more manageable.  Incorporating pieces of medical equiptment into artwork can help to normalize kids’ experiences and give them a sense of mastery and control during their treatment process.  Art work such as this can serve as a reminder of the bravey and resilience shown by children facing such daunting medical treatment.

The mother of one of our young patients (who recently underwent a bone marrow transplant) brought his radiation mask to the art therapists, asking them to transform it into “something that can hang in [my child’s] room to remind him of everything he’s gotten through.”

radiation mask

A common part of the preparation regimen for a bone marrow transplant is radiation, which destroys the patient’s own bone marrow in order to make way for the donor’s bone marrow. If the radiation is to a person’s head, a radiation mask is made to help keep the person’s head still and in the same position for each radiation treatment (which can be multiple days, sometimes over the course of several weeks).  The creation and wearing of a radiation mask can be a very scary experience, as materials are stretched over the child’s face in order to ensure an accurate fit.  During radiation, a child must wear the hardened mask which is secured to a table. 

Using a heat tool and scissors, the art therapists were able to cut away the extra material from the face of the radiation mask and painted it with bright colors and stars.  Now the mask is a fantastic reminder for the patient and his family of the many challenges they have overcome throughout their fight against cancer.  

Mask5Mask1

Art Can Be Anywhere

Last month, Methodist Children’s started doing renovations on our Hem/Onc/Transplant unit, so we temporarily moved to another floor.  Up until then, afternoon art therapy groups were held in the family room – the only common area we have on our unit because space did not allow for a playroom – so  I had to get creative about space on this new floor where there would be no common rooms at all.  The kids and parents were really concerned that there wouldn’t be a place to do art in our temporary home, and doing art only at the bedside was not a substitute.  They love to get together with other families!

Luckily, I have some experience finding space where there is none.  Most art therapists have worked in places where they had no office, no desk, and sometimes not even a decent table to do art on.  I have worked in wonderful dedicated art spaces, but I have also crammed myself and participants at tiny tables in waiting rooms.  As a student, I worked one year in a private office full of art supplies, and another toting around a large plastic bin of supplies and paper and perching wherever I could find a customer.  Right now, I have a little bit of both.  The clinic has a playroom that I share with Child Life, and I can easily facilitate art groups in there.  In the afternoons, I roll an art cart over the the unit and either go to patients’ rooms or run groups in the family room, as I mentioned.  Personally, I enjoy the challenge of coming up with ways to make space – or lack thereof – work.  Honestly, I think the families do, too.  Sure, they would all love a spacious play/art room, but they also enjoy coming together and rising to that challenge.

When faced with no room to do art, I, along with the families, decided we could just roll the bedside tray tables out in the hall and work there.  Sometimes kids put paper on the walls and paint, others face each other in pairs on the small tables and get to know each other.  Though it’s a little strange to invite families to a BYOT (Bring You Own Table) art party, it is fun to see these big groups out in an unlikely place.  The nurses and doctors love having the kids and families out in the open where they can all interact and see what the kids are making.  I am looking forward to our renovated unit, which will now have a more functional, kid-friendly,  multi-purpose activity room, but I have really enjoyed getting the families out in the hall together to make art, talk, and change the boring hospital hallway into the social center of the unit.

Always Happy No Matter What

One important facet of the Tracy’s Kids philosophy is that art-making can empower children to be active in their treatment, alleviating the passivity of being a patient. When most people think about hospitals they imagine sick people laying in beds, but this painting perfectly illustrates how art can transform the treatment center into a place of wellness and activity. Created by the 10-year-old sister of a patient, she said the following about her art work:

Even though the kids here are sick, they still have fun and do things. There is a big rain storm, but they don’t care. They are painting and playing anyway.”

This young girl had never been with her sister to the hospital before, and it is incredibly gratifying to see that the art room made her view the entire hospital as a place where kids are happy and getting well.

Transformation: Lemons into lemonade

I was thinking today about what our programs teach the kids. People don’t come to the hospital expecting to make art, and at most hospitals art is not part of the process. But healing and creativity have a lot in common. They are both about transformation—making lemons into lemonade.

We start by meeting kids and families where they are, literally. We are part of the hospital staff. We know the routine, who’s who, and how to find your way around. We are there to help them find a way to just “be” in the treatment space. We invite them to let their imaginations, their stories, their interests and personalities help them through. And what they learn, I hope, is to trust their imaginations.

This summer at Lombardi we’ve been working on a group project that involves making “Big Heads” out of cardboard boxes. They’re part of a bigger project, which I’ll tell you more about in a later blog entry. But what is cool about the process so far is that kids can look at a cardboard box and see cheetahs, birds, monkeys, people, characters—and with  duct tape and tempera paint we work together to make them come alive. Spending an afternoon transforming a box into a graceful, beautiful, funky piece of art gives a kid a real feeling of accomplishment.

When I was in fourth grade we had an assignment to create a 3-D moth or butterfly out of paper. We were given two large sheets of white paper and told to draw our chosen butterfly as big as possible. We cut out the shape, traced it onto another piece of paper, and colored both pieces to show the markings of the butterfly. We then stuffed them with crushed paper and cotton balls and stapled around the edges. I made a luna moth, which was beautiful with its pale green wings, brown body, fuzzy antennae and graceful shape. It felt like a huge accomplishment when I was done. To me, it looked like a real, giant luna moth. The teacher hung all the butterflies around the classroom for a while, and they looked great. That was over forty years ago, and I still remember both the beauty of the object and how great I felt about making it.

I hope that many of the kids we work with will look back and remember the wonderful things they made, the solutions they figured out, and the feeling of accomplishment that came from the work. It’s a surprise—you never know what you can do until you try.