Whenever Chris, 8, arrives at Children's Hospital for dialysis, the first thing he does is check in at a small office on the third floor crammed with posters, poetry collections and art supplies, with a piano parked outside the door.
The office houses New Horizons, the hospital's full-time arts program, and if artist-in-residence Tom Thompson isn't there, Chris leaves him a note: "Hi, Tom. Come and see me. Room 3138," or just, "Hey, Tom, where are you?"
They have a collection of notes at the New Horizons office, and many stories of young patients who stop by to make sure the artists will be coming to work with them.
For a child about to lose control over what will happen to his body, it helps to be able to choose a project he would like to do, to work with an artist he knows and likes and, through art, poetry or dance, to enter into the world of the imagination.
"You know that kids generally don't like to come to a hospital. It's scary," says Susan Zox-Eidenberg, New Horizons' director. "It's important for them to know there's a positive aspect to it, and especially if they're chronic patients, to know there are certain people like Tom who will be here for them and projects to do that are fun and help take them 'out' of this place."
Thompson visits patients individually five days a week, bringing them art supplies, letting them work on their own, then visiting again to talk about their drawings and teach many of them printmaking.
When Donald, 5, sees other kids getting crayons and paints, he hurries out to meet Thompson, pulling his portable intravenous machine behind him. Thompson leaves him with a stack of paper and crayons, and before he is off the unit, Donald and his i.v. are there again.
He's filled up every sheet of paper and he explains, "That's the sun. It's raining. That's my mommy, that's me, that's my sister. That's my sister and it's raining." He asks for two more things before Thompson leaves: more paper, and reassurance that he'll return.
More than 9,000 patients stay at Children's every year, and New Horizons involves many of them in graphic arts, poetry and dance. The program also treats them to what Zox-Eidenberg calls "a livable environment" enlivened by everything from a Robert Rauschenberg wall mural to performances twice a month in the hospital's atrium. Closed-circuit television carries special educational and entertainment programming five hours a day.
New Horizons began in 1978, soon after the hospital opened, as part of a commitment to addressing the needs of the child beyond physical ailments. It is designed to help patients feel less anxious and frightened, to continue their learning and develop their creativity even though they are ill. It is funded through grants and private donations.
Dr. Judson Randolph, chief of surgery at Children's, says Zox-Eidenberg and the artists are "an important part of the health care team. If children lie there and look at the ceiling or the TV for the entire time they're here, it's different than if they come to one of the performances or look at the art.
"We're all constantly stimulated," he says. "New Horizons enriches the hospital environment for everybody here."
It is also concerned with the broader elements of healing -- the intangibles of intellectual stimulation, emotional support and free expression that art encourages, and that help children fight illness or injury. The process includes using art and poetry to help children articulate their feelings about sickness and hospitalization.
If I could be anything
in the world but what I am
I wouldn't choose
an animal that eats people
like a tiger or a lion.
I wouldn't be a telephone
that's got to talk all day,
or liver. Nobody likes liver.
And I don't want to be
no kind of plant like a rose
because they die, and not
a TV either, because they go
to repair shops where
they be putting tools into them.
It could be much simpler
than any of that, just a boy
without asthma. -- Charles, age 6
Poet Caroline Marshall talks to children at the hospital, writes down their ideas and responses, helps them shape their words into poems. She began working with John, a quadraplegic, when he was 4. Over a series of days he looked at letters of the alphabet and described what each one looked like to him. Now he is 7, and she plans to show him work by Langston Hughes because, "even though John can't move, it's astonishing how much movement there is in his face. You can almost see it under his skin. If he got a sense of cadence like Hughes' in his head, who knows what he might do with words, because his only power is in his mouth."
Marshall uses poetry not only to bring children pleasure while they are hospitalized, but also to help them adjust to a life that may be permanently circumscribed or altered by illness.
"So often why they're here has created a wholly different self than they knew before," she says. "The work they do in poetry becomes part of a larger healing, or larger adaptation, or larger sense of themselves beyond their experiences here in the hospital." Some patients continue to correspond with Marshall after they leave, some show her poetry they write on their own.
Sometimes a relationship with the artist helps children overcome feelings of isolation reinforced by illness.
Dr. Carmen Talarico, a senior fellow in pediatric radiology, recalls the day he was checking a boy with a brain tumor who "had been withdrawn his whole life and was afraid of strangers." Then Thompson walked in the room and the boy "brightened up, it was like his best friend walked in. There was an obvious identification with a human being who wasn't a physician."
"If you have a child admitted for chemotherapy, for example," says Talarico, "who goes through vomiting every day, who loses his hair, who loses all the things other kids take for granted -- I would have to think that he begins to depend on things like the art to relate to other people. It's the relationship to those basic vestiges of normality that the program provides."
In the hospital
not to your mouth
but to your heart
because it says you're living
while your mouth
likes to talk about
movies you've seen on TV,
books you read, like mysteries,
about how the weather is outside.
The mouth acts like someone
who thinks he's real smart
while the heart keeps
its understanding quiet inside. -- Wendy, age 11
On this past Valentine's Day, kids were walking, rolling their wheelchairs, being wheeled on their beds into the center of the hospital's atrium for a performance and valentine-making party. The room bristled with portable i.v.'s and clicks from a dozen machines ripple like a field of crickets across talking and music.
While children cut hearts, sprinkled glitter and wrote messages to their parents and teachers, folk-singer Marcie Marxer played the guitar, spoons, accordian and violin.
Elizabeth, almost 4, lay on her back in bed, listening to the music, cutting fringe around the edges of a valentine that read, "To Daddy, Love Lizzie." A 6-year-old boy stopped to give her the valentine he'd made.
Elizabeth's mother, Shirley Walters, says that because of New Horizons, "the kids end up having happier moments, they end up socializing with each other. She wouldn't have even touched base with that boy if they hadn't both been down here. And they sing songs, and it breaks up the tediousness of the day. You should have seen her smile when we got on the elevator just to go down."
Even bedridden children come to performances by local artists like Michele Valeri and the Dance Exchange, and by celebrities who volunteer their time. Itzhak Perlman played "Old McDonald" and other classics on his violin here; the Dance Theatre of Harlem has performed twice.
Zox-Eidenberg looks for performers who can involve the children, talking to them, letting them try an instrument, inviting them to watch while they warm up. "The kids do so much sitting, so much waiting," says Liz Lerman of the Dance Exchange. "The possibility of a participatory experience is so valuable."
Lerman and dancer Jeff Bliss also share the role of dancer-in-residence, working directly with groups of children on the units. Every Wednesday, one or the other helps pianist William Brubaker wheel a battered upright through the hospital's corridors. Then, while Brubaker plays a little rhythm and blues, they gather kids in a circle near the piano.
For those who can't leave their rooms, "we just try to open the doors and let them hear us," says Bliss. Once when a child he knew was in isolation, he danced with him through the window glass.
On the adolescent unit, seven teen-agers arrived and sat without looking at each other. They had cystic fibrosis, anorexia, spina bifida, and they are at an age when they're self-conscious. Bliss started them with shoulder rolls. They did them half-heartedly, giggled, looked away. Since it was Valentine's Day he asked what that made them think of. "Love, life, sharing," they mumbled. "Hurt," said someone. "Death."
One boy volunteered a movement to a dance. "Hurt," he said, clutching his stomach, pulling his body in. No one else volunteered a movement, but everyone, without exception, performed the ones that Bliss suggested. They were so focused they made no mistakes. They tried seven movements quickly, then slowly. Then they all held hands and pass a rippling movement around the circle several times. No one missed, not even the boy who had to reach across his i.v. machine to touch the next girl.
After six years of work at Children's, Zox-Eidenberg says, the artists have become accepted and trusted by the doctors and are being involved in medical planning and programs.
New Horizons has received other signs of recognition as well. Partners for Livable Places, a spinoff of an architecture panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, recently gave the program an award for its "use of an environment to stimulate and support those who work within it." The Metropolitan Museum of Art is sending a medieval art exhibit this fall, the first Met show to be lent to a group other than a museum outside New York. A children's hospital in Memphis consulted with Zox-Eidenberg to set up its own arts program.
But for Zox-Eidenberg and the artists, the focus remains on their work for the children.
"It's the process of what we're doing with children and what they're doing with us that we believe in so strongly," Thompson says. "A child may produce a work of art or a poem at the end of a session, but that's not as important as what they went through to get there. And if that process empowers them to feel at least strong enough to fight the traumatic aspects of their hospital stay a little bit better, then we've done a big thing."
For a long time I wanted to live in a short-tailed body, like Joshua's, and have fur sort of like soft gold. I wanted to go "Rah! Rah-rah-rah!" when I got teased, instead of mad. I wanted to feel happy at the same time, like him, and use my tail to wag the world I was. I finally decided I like my own body better, though, 'cause it doesn't have mean teeth. -- Deanna, age 8