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LEXINGTON, Ky. (2/14/16) — With his mom dragging an IV pole in the wake of his excitement, 8-year-old Isaiah Thompson paraded down the hallway of Kentucky Children’s Hospital flaunting his detective skills to the nursing staff.

“I found the hotel,” Isaiah said, turning to a group behind the nurse’s desk. “They said the hotel was the hardest to find, and I found it. It was hiding under a flower.”

Isaiah found the elusive hotel — a red Monopoly game piece about the size of a thumbnail —in the dense brush of paper flowers on the Valentine’s Day mural hanging in the KCH lobby. The hotel piece was one of more than 20 hidden items in the heart-shaped mural composed of frilly red and white construction paper flowers, gems, bows and ribbons. More than just a piece of Valentine’s-inspired artwork, the mural served as a life-size “eye spy” game to occupy the minds of families and children receiving care at the hospital. Directions taped to the wall beside the mural instructed patients, siblings, visitors and family members to find figures camouflaged into the heart’s design, including a wrench, a cow, a butterfly and a tiny chair.

Since mural appeared in the lobby window at the end of January, nurses, doctors, Child Life workers and families checked off every item on the list of hidden items — except for the mysterious hotel piece. Isaiah and 12-year-old patient Anna Shelton were the first to spot the hotel, thanks in part to a tip they received from the mural’s creator, Debbie Van Leeuwen.

Van Leeuwen, a Lexington artist and volunteer for KCH who designs murals for children receiving treatment, watched from the edge of the lobby as Isaiah and Anna explored the Valentine’s mural on Feb. 9. An uncover artist for KCH since early 2015, Van Leeuwen assumes a background volunteer role as the silent source of artwork for children and families at KCH.

With the help of the Child Life team at KCH, Van Leeuwen paints individualized murals for children staying in the hospital for extended periods of time. The Child Life team at KCH recognizes when a patient or sibling of a patient needs extra encouragement or a positive distraction from their treatment. The Child Life team gathers four to six facts about the child’s interests, such as his or her favorite cartoon characters, toys and sports teams, and reports the information to Van Leeuwen, who then begins designing and painting a mural based on those details. The murals are 3-feet by 3-feet and attach and detach from walls without causing damage to the room. Van Leeuwen has created 34 vibrant murals depicting images such as Spider Man and G.I. Joe, as well as the Frozen princesses and Dalmatians.

While she only receives a child’s first name, age and a list of their favorite things, Van Leeuwen feels like she bonds with the young patients through her creative process. The artist doesn’t know why the recipients of her artwork are in the hospital, and she never meets them in person. When she first volunteered to create murals for children, she struggled with a lack of closure, wondering whether her artwork provided a glimmer of hope or moment of joy for children in the midst of a negative circumstance. She wondered if she got the child’s personal preferences right and if her compassion was translated through art.

The Child Life team provided Van Leeuwen with some resolution when they started writing down word-for-word the comments of children and family members upon receiving their special mural. After they deliver the artwork to the child’s hospital room at an appropriate time, they type all the comments from the child and family members in an email. Van Leeuwen said one of the emails reported that a young girl wanted to hug her Mini Mouse mural.

“Honestly, it is that email that I wait for, and it charges me for the next painting,” Van Leeuwen said. “It is one of the most precious things in my life.”

Last summer when Van Leeuwen was dropping off paintings at KCH, Judi Martin, the Child Life coordinator, showed her a window in the lobby overlooking a brick wall. Martin asked Van Leeuwen to help obstruct the view with a piece of artwork. Van Leeuwen created a Christmas mural to hang in the window during the holidays, and replaced the Christmas mural with the Valentine’s Day mural in January.

Van Leeuwen, an empty nester who created murals for her three children while they were growing up, has also supplied murals for major milestones in the lives of KCH patients, including individualized murals for high school graduation ceremonies of cancer patients and a memory tree mural for a KCH remembrance service. She relies on her Child Life team informants to ensure her work for individual patients accomplishes its purpose. She said the support provided by the Child Life team allows her share art and bring joy to patients without having a physical presence in their lives.

“My thing is painting and their thing is the relationship with the child,” Van Leeuwen said. “And they know when it’s the right time and they know who needs it and who could use it.”

SurfKY News
Information provided by Elizabeth Adams, Taylor Till - UK News

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