About this story
Just over 20 years ago I discovered drawing — an experience much like that of a drowning man who discovers he can float. At the time my son Joe, then 3 months old, was lying unconscious after a major heart operation. Each night I would sit beside him and draw him, hoping against the odds that he would regain consciousness.
Earlier this year David Wessel, chief medical officer of the Children’s National Health System in Washington, invited me to spend a few days at his hospital’s Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. The offer came after Wessel saw an article I had written about my son, who is now 21. (Yes, after several scares Joe made it to adulthood.)
Every child in the unit is very sick. The families dealing with their children’s sickness are emotionally raw, frightened and fighting for hope, much as I was. At first it seemed very unlikely that I would be able to find parents willing to let a stranger into their most vulnerable of times, but it turned out that our shared experience allowed them to trust me to tell their stories.
So I would hang out and draw. And they would go on about their days. We would talk, but mostly I would just show up and draw. I think I was a welcome distraction for them, after long weeks and months in the hospital. The parents enjoyed having someone outside medicine paying attention to their children. And I think the parents connected with the intimacy of the drawings.
Those parents have received the originals of the sketches that I made. For some they will be keepsakes of hard days of worry with gloriously happy endings, but for others the drawings are memorials to loss and young lives cut far too short. It was a privilege to spend time with them all. — Richard Johnson
Editor’s note: At 6:05 a.m. on October 29, 2015, young Michael Eppler passed away. He died peacefully in his parents’ arms in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.