Young Duke Medicine patients create holiday art during treatment

Nov. 27, 2013 @ 02:49 PM

Six-year-old Quintana Ford plopped down at the art table, littered with paper, blobs of paint and little wooden stars. She pulled her IV stand and medicine pump next to her, then picked up a paintbrush and dipped it into a sunny yellow.

Tuesday marked Ford’s last chemotherapy treatment, after two and a half years of battling leukemia. She spent every Tuesday for a while in Duke Children’s Valvano Day Hospital, surrounded by bright walls painted with sea creatures.
The art table in the clinic is her getaway, where art projects allow a creative escape from hours of being hooked up to machines and blood pressure checks. 
Arts For Life, a North Carolina nonprofit that brings art education programs into hospitals, has been based at Duke Medicine since 2003. About a dozen volunteers visit patient rooms, clinics and waiting rooms six days a week with an art lesson in tow.
“You get a lot of perspective working with these families and working in this environment,” said Mary Margaret Fulk, program director for Arts For Life Durham. “They’re going through tough times, but they handle it with grace.”
Half a dozen children were working on a holiday project Tuesday during their treatment. They painted wooden stars bright yellows and greens, and 150 of these star creations would soon to be nestled into the branches of a 10-foot-tall Christmas tree.
“Jason, don’t rush,” Fulk told one of the patients, 10-year-old Jason Vaquiz-Mendoza, who was receiving an infusion for his Pompe disease, an inherited disorder that results in muscle weakness and difficulty speaking. “You’re here for hours. You’ve got nothing but time.”
Vaquiz-Mendoza is in the clinic every other week, and he and his mom, Vanessa, travel from Willow Spring, an hour away, just to get to his treatment. Jason said his favorite part of the art table is getting to paint.
Last year, Vanessa said, her son made a Christmas plate, decorated with a hand-drawn Christmas tree.
“That’s one of his favorite things, when he comes here,” she said.
Fulk sat among the young patients, smiling and maneuvering the finished stars to a place where they could dry. They were planning to enter their Christmas tree into the Triangle Christmas Tree Challenge for nonprofits. Their tree is an interpretation of Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
Quintana Ford reminded Fulk that Tuesday was her last day receiving chemo. After that, she’d come back in January for a check-up and, hopefully, get the port removed from her chest, where she receives her medicine instead of through her arms.
“Last chemo!” Fulk gushed. “That is a good thing. That is a celebration thing. That is a do-your-dance kinda thing.”
She grabbed one of the new Arts For Life 2014 calendars, opening it to the month of October, where there was a tree drawn with colorful fall leaves. Ford lowered her head and smiled, bashful. It was her artwork. Ford flipped through the pages, examining the artwork of the other children.
“I like this one right here,” Quintana said, pointing to a psychedelic hot-pink and orange cat.
Ford’s mother, Arenia Poole, sat a few feet away. She said her daughter goes through pens and markers at home, loves to color and draw on everything.
When Ford was diagnosed with leukemia at 4 years old and started having seizures, Poole said she went from “a normal kid playing” to taking 10 medications a day, ones that made her sick and tired.
“She’s coming here to get a needle in her chest and they’re taking blood and giving her medicine,” Poole said. “Without the (art) table, for her it would be the most depressing thing in the world.”
They had visited the clinic every Tuesday for more than a year. Poole said she wanted to cry at first, that the diagnosis was frustrating, that she didn’t want to mess up or have anything happen to her daughter. But now, they’re almost finished with their journey.
“We’re getting closer to getting back to normal,” Poole said.
McKenzie Benton, 10, was at the table in snowman pajama pants, painting a few stars. She was diagnosed at the end of June with Dermatomyositis, a muscle disease that involves inflammation and a skin rash. McKenzie and her family travel from Concord to get to treatment. The medicine she receives helps with the inflammation, and she goes to physical therapy once a week.
“It’s like, so crafty, and you can get real messy, too,” McKenzie said about the art projects in clinic.
“She’s come a long way,” said her mother, Stacey Rogers. “She’s a strong girl.
“The more she smiles, the better I am.”