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When a Hospital Displayed a Painting I Made as a Patient

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I fell into art accidentally. It was a way to get my thoughts sorted out before I could actually talk about them. After my 13th surgery (intended to reconnect my digestive system so I could finally eat), I went to California on vacation, and after my wound ruptured, I was immediately air-vacced to Yale New Haven Hospital.

I was told I couldn’t eat or drink so the wound could heal. My mother went home and gathered every scrap of fabric she could find, along with an old set of acrylics and a glue gun. I worked feverishly in my hospital bed, gluing, painting and letting my imagination set me free. Every day, I would create a new work of art — a new source of hope — and display it outside my hospital room. Soon, nurses and even mobile patients would stroll by my room to see what I had made.

“Dancing Girl” was the third painting I had ever created. It’s 32 by 32 inches of tears, desperation, hope, gratitude and the fervent desire to keep my spirit alive.

young woman posing with her painting

I painted how I wanted to feel. Free. Alive. Dancing. “Dancing Girl” was just one of the many paintings I churned out over that time, while staying in a gorgeous art mecca — the hospital itself. Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New Haven has established an “evidence-based art program expressly for the emotional and physical well-being of patients and their families.” Their belief that emotional healing contributes significantly to physical healing was completely apparent in the beautiful art that lined every hallway, which I had come to know well as a patient by the end of my three months there.

After my stay, I heard Yale New Haven was looking for art for a new medical center. I submitted my work, but I didn’t expect to hear anything. So I was overjoyed when I received the call from the curator. They loved my piece, but they asked me if I could remove the tear.

I really wanted to keep the tear because, for me, life is about the joy and the pain. But it was more important that “Dancing Girl” be in the hospital for others, tear or not

A few weeks later, they called me again. They decided to keep the tear.

The bittersweet truth of life prevails. I can never leave any painting — no matter how happy — without a tear. It’s like an itch I can’t scratch if I leave it out. And perhaps because no matter how joyous things seem, I will always carry that tear with me. It’s my scar, it’s my sadness.

And I think the most beautiful thing of all is that I can feel my emotions about those years now. A deep, watery blue is so much prettier than a haze of gray numbness. Feeling my sadness is the greatest discovery within me. With every tear comes a newfound revelation that, yes, I am alive.

I went with my mother and father to the grand opening reception at the new hospital. It was strange it was to walk down hallways that were similar to the ones I saw as a patient. But I was an artist now.

With my parents at my side, we were led down all of the beautiful sparkling new hallways to see a breathtaking display of art. I trembled with nervous excitement, wondering what corner my “Dancing Girl” would be jumping mid-air, with her single tear.

And she was where I’d hope she’d be — on the wall of a unit where staff, patients and family members could see.

After the tour was over, my parents and I strolled around the healing garden. We walked in the pitch dark with plates of food in my hands from the reception instead of IVs. There were no ties anywhere, and nothing weighed us down. And my parents were so proud. We had all come so far. I had never loved my parents as much as I did in that moment.

We had all survived together. And now we were here to celebrate it. 

  A version of this post originally appeared on Amy Oestreicher.

Originally published: December 23, 2016
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