Creating a little teen spirit on the wards
Described as ‘a lost tribe’ by one consultant, ill adolescents take centre stage in art project
Right, Mary Bracken (18) with artist Rachel Tynan with a book they collaborated on called Colours of Life. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Patient Darren Ruane creates a horse with artist Emma Fisher at University Hospital Galway.
Patient Kayleigh Fox beside her artwork with artist Emma Fisher at University Hospital Galway.
Teenage dialysis patient Mary Bracken didn’t quite know what to make of artist Rachel Tynan when she arrived at her hospital bedside one day last year.
“I wasn’t too sure about this lady coming into me with a blue box and a feather inside. I wasn’t sure what was going on really.” But within 20 minutes they had “clicked” and a story was beginning to develop between the two of them.
They met on Tynan’s first day as artist-in-residence at the Children’s University Hospital, Temple Street, in Dublin, as part of an arts and health project for teenagers in hospital, run by Helium Arts.
Called Cloudlands, it is about giving adolescents “a voice and a place to be, which is away from their illness”, says Helium’s director, Helene Hugel.
“We don’t come from the therapy side of things – that is clinical and we are non-clinical,” she explains. Undoubtedly there are therapeutic benefits, but the work is primarily about artistic expression through collaboration.
One element of the project is a private, online forum to put teenagers in the three participating hospitals – Temple Street, University Hospital Galway and Cork University Hospital – in touch with each other. It means art, rather than illness, provides the common ground for their communication.
Initially the arrival of Tynan into Temple Street hospital was a welcome diversion for Mary, who has suffered from renal failure for more than four years and needs dialysis three times a week.
“It was something to do, something to focus on – a good distraction,” because being hooked up to a dialysis machine for three-and-a-half hours at a time is “boring”.
It quickly evolved into a fruitful artistic partnership. Being an outpatient, Mary’s days at the hospital – a two-hour journey from her home in Kilcormac, outside Tullamore, Co Offaly – did not necessarily coincide with the times Tynan was in, so they worked “remotely”.
“Every week I would leave her a package and she would leave something for me,” explains Tynan.
Hospital play specialist Olive Kelly says she was the “carrier pigeon” between the two of them. She is full of praise for Cloudlands which, she says, was badly needed as there is little for teenagers in Temple Street hospital, which last year had 1,105 inpatient admissions in the 12-16 age group.
The five play specialists do their best but, stretched all the time and with no designated area for teenagers, it is difficult to engage them. What’s more, there is no Wi-Fi available, which is almost unthinkable to any adolescent these days.
“I like being creative and doing creative things,” says Mary who, through her partnership with Tynan, first created a story about a blue Phoenix and has now written a book of poetry.
Illustrated by Tynan and her friends, Colours of Life is being published this month and will be sold in aid of both Temple Street and Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, which Mary had attended for nearly 15 years, after being born with a heart condition.
The poems are about “whatever popped into my brain”, says Mary. The “stress the illness has put me under; the pressure to make sure to remember to take certain tablets. I thought some days I would go insane because I thought it was never going to end.
“It is a good way to express yourself. You need some outlet; some days you are very angry: ‘Why is this happening?’, there is no particular explanation.”
Her mother, Joan, who has been instrumental in getting the book printed, says the project has been “brilliant” for Mary, giving her a huge psychological boost. The oldest of two children, she is in sixth year at Scoil Naomh Cormac but is housebound a lot as dialysis is both physically and emotionally tiring.
On the waiting list for a kidney transplant, Mary was transferred to the adult dialysis unit at Tullamore General Hospital in July after turning 18. There she is in the company of mostly much older people but is treated in a private cubicle.
“Some of the older people are very, very sick so it’s nice not having to be around that,” she says.
The hospital experience of young people who are no longer children but not yet adults is an issue that gets little attention.
They are liable to find themselves either in the midst of sick toddlers, in a children’s hospital, or surrounded by much older, very ill, adults in a general hospital.
Teenagers with chronic illnesses such as cystic fibrosis or diabetes may be all too familiar with hospital settings and medical routines, but they have to cope with changes that adolescence brings. They want to be like their peers but have to come to terms with the realisation that their illness isn’t going to allow them to live like everybody else.