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Childrens hospital uses art to help parents, patients

Kate Wells

Felicia McMillon and her husband are the kind of people who do not like hospitals. 

"My family, we really don’t do too well with hospitals,” she says, standing in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit of C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor.

And that was before they gave birth to their first child, Elijah.

He was born a month early with an intestinal infection. He’s now in his fourth surgery.

“The first surgery, he lost so much blood. Like, they came down and gave us the, ‘Oh your baby might die’ talk," she says.

"And that was like … I didn’t even know. I will tell you this: From a mom's standpoint, it's like being on a roller coaster. You know you are going to get off the roller coaster. But it doesn’t stop you from being scared when you hit the top, you know what I mean?”

For parents, hospital art offers proof: your baby can come through this

Yet McMillon says there are a few things the hospital is doing to make this roller coaster ride just a little smoother.

For one, there are kids' portraits. They line the halls leading into the NICU. 

“Aidan, the little boy with the watermelon? He's my favorite picture," she says.

Each kid (or "graduates" as Mott calls babies once treated in the NICU) is in two shots, side by side. The first one is black and white, when they’re preemies or sick babies, tiny and shriveled and hooked up to tubes.

But next to those are professional photo portraits of the same kid, this time in full color. They’re older, healthy, leading happy kid lives playing basketball or riding horses – or in Aidan’s case, stuffing his little face with watermelon.

This wall is designed to help parents get through the hardest moments of their lives – to reach them somewhere words can’t, to say, "You and your baby are not the first ones here. You and your baby will come out the other side."

Felicia McMillon loves this wall. 

“My baby was born at 35 weeks and six days. These babies, 23 weeks, you know 36 weeks, it gives me hope.”

It's only a matter of time, McMillon believes, until her son Elijah has his own portrait on these walls.

“Exactly! If they ask for one, I’m definitely going to give them one.”

For kids, it's the uncertainty that can be hardest

One thing hospitals have learned about the patient experience is that transitions can be especially hard.

That’s why a lot of their art installations are designed for the entrances and exits in wings of the hospital.

Like the giant, larger-than-life underwater mural that covers the pediatric surgery hallway.

"A lot of times, it's really stressful for kids," says nurse Ellen Johnson.

"We've been in this hospital environment, and then we pass through this mural, and it's like, 'Wow!' It's just so distracting. We'll say, 'Can you find the fairy door? How many fish can you find?'"

The mural is designed to look like the Huron river, with fish and frogs darting in and out of lily pads.

When you look up – which you kind of have to do when you’re a kid lying on a gurney – you see the surface of the river, with a kayak passing by overhead, and a duck’s feet paddling.

Just then, another nurse passes by, pushing a young girl on a gurney into surgery.

As they approach the mural, the nurse tries to distract her:

“Ok, we’re going to go for a ride, and I want you to tell me how many fish you can spot on the mural. I want to see if you’re better than the other kids who’ve been here ... ok, here's the wall! I just want you to tell me.”

But how much can art really do to help with stress?

The kind of momentary distraction the wall can bring can seem really minor.

"Even if it's just to get blood drawn," Zander says. "Those needles hurt! And if they're looking at the giant canoe instead, that kind of thing, it's just awesome."

But it can give kids a break, just for a second, from being sick.

“There was a 3D metal lizard and it really caught my eye. And I was like, how’d they make that? And they let me take it off the wall and hold it and stuff. It was really cool," recounts Zander Albercook.

He's 15 years old, with bright blue hair and a gentle, precocious manner.

"I had surgery for a craniopharyngioma, which is a brain tumor, on January 22."

Zander, needless to say, has spent his fair share of time in hospitals.

His prognosis is good now, and he and his school are raising money for art at C.S. Mott. 

They want to add to the big mural, maybe some more eye-catching stuff aimed at kids.

“Even if it’s just to get blood drawn," Zander says. "Those needles hurt! And if they're looking at the giant canoe instead, that kind of thing, it's just awesome."

And maybe that'll give another sick kid a few moments to just be a kid.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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