Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Wednesday Job

"I think these difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way and that so many things that one goes around worrying about are of no importance whatsoever" Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixon) 1885-1962

Every Wednesday, for the past several years, I have taken the 8:50 train  to Penn station and walk down 34th St. to the NYU Cancer Center  between Third and Lexington.  I am greeted by the wonderful Angie, who calls out "what floor are you on today sweetheart?"
I'm on 5 Ange - they should have the table for me. " Well if they don't you just let me know."
 I will, Thanks.

My job is to work with cancer patients as they are getting infusion, offering art projects of various challenges from the simple painting of small wooden boxes, to paper weaving, collage, jewelry making, or watercolor. I am not an art therapist but rather, work under an 'art as healing' premise which takes form as cathartic creativity.  Although I am not an art therapist, I have seen more than one painting of bare trees in the middle of summer. I walk around, knock on a curtain, (which still causes me discomfort) as I do not want to intrude on a vulnerable and personal experience.  I politely explain who I am, what I do, and emphasize it is a free service offered to patients, their aids, family members or whoever might wish to participate. Everyone has always been polite and gracious when declining, but the majority are interested, and willing to try something a little different. More often than not I hear the inevitable - I have no talent - can't draw a straight line with a ruler. At which point I might pull out (one of the wooden boxes?)

I have met a lot of patients who are really good artists i.e. alchemists as they have managed to spin great art out of limited materials. This is always a treat.

The range of illness comes in all forms and stages.  Cancer does not discriminate. There are wigs, turbans, short short hair, no hair, or possibly a stubble starting to grow back. Clear plastic lines attached to ominous bags of fluids with ominous sounding names of chemicals  drip, drip, dripping into ports, and the veins of arms and hands. Sometimes a bleep goes off indicating there might be air in the line, and a nurse appears more quickly and  efficiently than one would expect.  A lot of times, opting out of art, a patient may just want to talk which I gladly do.  I am surprised at how many are not only open, but eager to discuss their illnesses. I listen attentively, finding the more advanced cases surreal.

Shamefully, I am someone who gets a cold and complains for the entire duration all the while scarfing down every over the counter medication - drowsy, or non, vitamin C, zinc, echinacea, cough syrup and Advil. 

I am understanding that an illness becomes a full time profession as one winds their way through tediously long waits and the maze of medical bureaucracy. In addition, many are waiting for test results that will determine the length and course of their next regiment,  a stray metastatic cell or whether the severity of the treatment they have chosen to undergo is even working.

My mind boggles, I find myself at times sobbing in hallways after being blindsided by the news that a long time patient has died over the weekend. My mind boggles at the grace with which so many  handle the worst. I have come to believe in a true aristocracy simply comprised of the people I meet on Wednesdays.
All photos by Jessica Lenard

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