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Mar 26, 2009 · Leave a Reply

Learning Perspective

By Jeff Bell @jpaulbell

Jeff Bell is the Section Head of Illustration and Design at Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN. Jeff and his team are responsible for all of Mayo's media design.
In 2003 I asked Randy McKeeman, Director of Child Life at Mayo Clinic’s children’s hospital, what he thought about the idea of me coming over to draw pictures for the pediatric patients. He agreed to let me give it a try.

tph1166014_07-web-mss_519851-revision-13I didn’t tell Randy at the time but I’m not a performance artist and although I knew I could draw fairly well, I was scared to death to do it on demand while someone watched. I had no idea what would happen, it just seemed like a good idea. A week or so later I began. I got on the shuttle to Saint Marys Hospital from the Mayo building with a nervous feeling in my stomach, a pad of paper under my arm and a fist-full of Sharpie markers thinking “what have I gotten myself into?”

I remember my very first little customer, an eight-year-old cherub-like boy in a wheelchair who was hooked up to a beeping chemo machine. I asked him what he wanted me to draw for him. He smiled, looked down at his fuzzy slipper-clad feet, wiggled them and happily blurted out, “I want you to draw my bunny slippers.” I thought to myself, “Thank goodness, I think I can do that.” I then proceeded to create a decent facsimile adding his name in cartoon balloon letters for flair. I knew from then on I could never guess what I was going to be asked to draw.

On one early visit I sidled my chair up to the bedside of an energetic 11-year-old boy who had just lost both of his legs. I asked him what he would like me to draw for him. With a sunny matter-of-fact expression he chirped, “Draw a picture of me climbing a mountain, as soon as I can, I want to climb a mountain.” I didn’t expect that. Through the next minutes of friendly chatter punctuated by the squeak of a Sharpie marker on paper, we talked about all his plans and dreams as if they were foregone conclusions. His outlook was amazing.

Still another time I talked with a boy in his early teens who had atrophied from the waist down due to a spinal cord injury. He was lying on his stomach on a self-propelled gurney. With eager eyes and his head lifted up we talked about all the things he liked to do and how excited he was for Halloween to arrive so he could go trick-or-treating on his cart around the hospital. Then, with his neck craned to one side and with a big grin, he cheerfully directed me as I drew two personalized license plates to tape to the front and back of his cart. tph1166014_03-web-mss_519847-revision-11

During a different session I was sitting at a kindergarten-sized table in the playroom on Francis 3 drawing a picture for a nine-year-old cancer patient. I was putting the finishing touches on a drawing of a princess in a ball-gown when her mother swept in, leaned over the table and breathlessly declared, “Honey, the doctor said your tumor is shrinking. Let’s go call Grandma right now and tell her!” I stopped what I was doing, arrested mid-stroke. There are moments where by some design of life we feel completely irrelevant. This was one of them. I had just been witness to a drive-by miracle and in the process had become wonderfully and completely irrelevant. I finished drawing a princess for her.

As time went by I began to realize what was happening on these visits. I was learning perspective. With each session, hospital rooms magically turned into classrooms and ICU beds became lecterns where ten-year-old professors lay imparting wisdom in perspective. For my part, I was a student disguised as a Mayo employee who drew pictures of kittens, racecars, superheros, or whatever grasped their imagination at the moment. Every time I put marker to paper for another young patient I couldn’t help feeling that I came out of the exchange richer than when I had begun.

Still on another visit, I was ushered into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where a baby girl lay dying of hydrocephalus. She certainly didn’t need anything that I had to offer. Acutely aware of my smallness, I quietly drew her name in playful letters surrounded by flowers and butterflies and gave it to her parents. Their graciousness and gratitude were humbling and I was out of my league in my ability to respond. I wanted “perspective class” to get out early that day.

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Not very long ago a little girl came up to me as I finished drawing for another patient in the Child Life Activity Room. She politely asked me to draw a picture of “a dog with a daddy.” She didn’t appear to be a patient but I said “Sure, what kind of dog would you like?” “A golden retriever” she replied. I did a pretty good job drawing the dog she had asked for sitting contentedly with a ball at its feet. Then I remembered, “I need to add a daddy.” It turns out I was so focused on the dog that I hadn’t left much room for him. “That’s ok” I thought, I’ll draw him half out of the picture with his hand reaching down from the top of the page just touching the top of the dog’s head. Perfect.

A half hour later, I was in the hallway on my way to another patient’s room when I saw a man who looked to be in his 60’s walking straight towards me. As he got closer I could see he was crying. I stopped in the hall and faced him. Without introducing himself he started talking. In a shaky voice he said, “I just have to thank you for the drawing you did for my granddaughter.” Then he added, “That was my son. That was my son in the picture. That was my son.” He thanked me some more and turned and left.

Later on I learned that this man’s son had just been killed in a tragic car accident with one daughter still in the ICU as a result. The girl who asked for the picture of the “dog with a daddy” was the son’s other daughter. To him, the hand that reached down into the picture gently touching the golden retriever symbolized the loving presence of his son.

And so it goes with this new education of mine. It’s never the same. Sometimes when I go to draw, I feel awkward and not sure what I will say or how it will all turn out. Sometimes a six-year-old art critic announces that the deer I just drew looks more like a cow. Other times a small miracle happens. But always, I learn perspective.

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Tags: art, Hospital, Matthew Clark PhD, medicine, Pediatrics, Sketch, volunteer

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