Healing power of art: Kids in hospital get 'Doodles'

With doctors in masks, high-tech equipment out of a scary science-fiction movie and the threat of painful shots, a hospital visit can be frightening and bewildering for children. And for those who stay awhile, it can also be very boring.

Those who work with children and families at local hospitals often turn to art as a way to deal with both fear and tedium.

"Art helps kids remember to just be kids," said Rosalie Frankel, an art therapist at Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center. "They can be active and creative, even though they're in a foreign environment. In a world they can't control, art is nonthreatening and positive."

Many children end up in the hospital for asthma, injury or infections — some of the most common causes for hospitalization nationwide, according to a Harvard study — while others suffer from chronic illnesses such as cancer, cystic fibrosis and kidney failure. At Children's, the average stay is five days.

To keep her daughter Hallie, 8, occupied during stays for chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant, Reisha Holton of Sammamish filled bedpans with water to wash Barbies' hair and plastic horses, and made time to paint toenails and color.

After hearing about Hallie from a friend, Steffanie Lorig dreamed of creating an activity book for seriously ill children.

As the founder of Art with Heart, a community outreach branch of the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Lorig convinced nearly 100 artists and graphic designers to donate artwork for "Oodles of Doodles for Your Noodle."

The oversize 124-page book tailors games, jokes, puzzles and coloring pages to hospitalized children. It features signs kids can color and hang on IV poles, posters to personalize their rooms, postcards to write to friends, and questions that prompt writing how it feels to be in the hospital.

"Why did the cookie go to the hospital?" asks one page. ("Because it was feeling crummy.")

Another page suggests children pretend to transform the hospital into a zoo. "Which animal is your doctor? Your nurse?" it queries. "Draw them and write about why you chose those animals."

Contributing artists include Mary Grand Pré, who illustrated the "Harry Potter" books; Gary Baseman, creator of Disney's "Teacher's Pet" animated show; and Milton Glaser, whose artwork is displayed in many museums.

Getting lost in a drawing

Offered free to hospitals around the country, it's given to chronically ill kids locally at Children's and through the Northwest Make-a-Wish Foundation.

"This isn't some cheapie, throw-away coloring book," said Frankel. "It's really exceptional. Kids can hang on to it and use it over time."

Unlike TV or video games, it also encourages interaction between parent and child.

"For parents, going in and out of the hospital is an experience that dries you up," said Holton, whose daughter was diagnosed with cancer at age 1. "This book is a springboard for engaging with your child, but not having to think of something to do."

Nick Jester, 9, of Puyallup, tracks appointments for chemotherapy on "Oodles' " bright, funky calendars. "He likes to know when things are happening," said his mom, Alisa Jester.

Self-contained and requiring only a pencil or markers, the book allows kids to "laugh and giggle right there in bed, or throw it in a bag when they go for dialysis treatment," Holton said. "It gets the parent and child's mind off where they are because they get lost in a colorful drawing."

As one 11-year-old surgical patient told Frankel, "My favorite is the 'Picture Yourself' page. When I was frustrated, I did this page, and I drew myself happy, even though I wasn't happy on the outside. If I could be the girl in the picture, I could think about good things and not all the bad things I am going through."

'Is it going to hurt?'

In the hospital, the most common question from kids is, "Is it going to hurt?" Traumas include shots, being away from parents, taking bad-tasting medicine and facing the unknown in the operating room, said Kim Korte, Children's child-life manager, who oversees a 15-member team of playroom coordinators, art therapists and child-life specialists (who hold a college degree and have a background in child development and more than 400 hours of clinical experience).

While the answer to the pain question is usually yes, child-life specialists know plenty of tricks. They might blow bubbles or sing a song while a nurse places an IV. They engage children in medical play and act as liaisons between families and hospital staff.

At Swedish Medical Center, for example, child-life specialist Bradie Kvinsland uses puppets and life-size dolls to show how an anesthesiologist applies a mask to give "sleep medicine."

Kids get to pick the flavor — bubble gum, strawberry, watermelon — they want painted inside the mask, and what story they'd like to hear while they're falling off to sleep. They can bring a favorite blanket, stuffed animal or pillow into the operating room.

For young patients who face long stays, child-life specialists focus on distraction and stimulation. At Children's, kids who feel up to it can go to a large playroom or volunteers will go to rooms to read books or do crafts.

Frankel wheels around a large cart with all sorts of art materials. Sometimes art is a way to give kids choices and help them feel successful, while other times it offers a glimpse into how they're processing their experience.

"They might think they're bad and that's why they're sick, and it comes out in something they draw," Frankel said.

Stephanie Dunnewind: sdunnewind@seattletimes.com.