The devastation and helplessness you feel when your child is diagnosed with life-threatening illness is too much for most parents to imagine. But for some this becomes a reality. One such parent was Lisa Wooldridge whose daughter Erin was diagnosed with Leukaemia at the age of just 4.
Lisa explains how her love of art, colour, drawing and painting helped both Erin and herself during this difficult and worrying time and how she is now donating in a unique and interactive way back to the hospital who helped her family so much.
Originally from South Africa and a trained textile designer, Lisa worked in various jobs when she arrived in the UK. It was after her youngest Erin was born that Lisa decided to rediscover her passion for art by joining a local art class. Lisa says “I wanted to do something for myself. Have some time to do something that was for me. The classes were designed for artists to revive their artistic flare.”
“It was shortly after these classes and whilst I was out with a friend, I was asked if I could paint a picture of her dog. I said I was more than happy to give it a go. Things simply snowballed from there.” With both her children now at school, Lisa’s hobby was slowly turning into a full-time job.
But all of this was about to be put on hold, when Lisa’s youngest child Erin was diagnosed with Leukaemia. A huge shock to the whole family. Diagnosed and hospitalised at The Marsden, London within days, Lisa explains "We just went into battle mode overnight, adrenaline kicked in. We had to take it day by day, always trying to keep a positive outlook”.
On day 3, Lisa asked the consultants if it would be OK for her to bring her paints onto the ward. During long periods of time when Erin needed to rest and sleep Lisa would paint. Lisa explains “After the doctors had done their rounds and Erin had fallen to sleep due to her treatment, I didn’t just want to sit and stare at my daughter. I made a decision not to do any commissioned work, I wanted to do something that was for us, something that didn’t have a time frame or any pressure associated to it. So I painted a picture of our family dog. Not only did it help to pass the time it also became a welcome distraction. Other patients or parents might pop by Erin’s cubicle and pass comment. It became a way of talking about something other than illness, treatments and machines. I was also surprised by how much it helped Erin too. Children pick up on their parent’s emotions, especially when they are unwell. They look for reassurance, guidance, and comfort. Although Erin’s prognosis was positive, it of course did not stop me from worrying endlessly about her. I didn’t want Erin to see me constantly texting or answering emails from other concerned family and friends so I made a conscious effort to put the mobile phone away and let Erin see me behaving naturally, painting and creating. I really think it helped us both.”
Erin’s treatment continued at The Royal Alexandra in Brighton. It was during the long periods of time spent at the hospital that Lisa noticed the artwork was very dated and grown up for a children’s ward. Although a generous donation to the hospital some years previously, the pictures provided no interest, colour or warmth to the surroundings. Lisa was more than happy to offer her services to create something bespoke for the hospital. A number of blank canvasses had been donated to the hospital for the children to use but Lisa felt asking children to create something from a blank canvass was a big ask. “It would be hard for anyone let alone a poorly child to create something from a blank canvass”.
Aware of the recent rise in popularity of mindfulness colouring books, the connection of working with your hands to soothe anxiety and eliminate stress, Lisa felt she had a great solution. To create artwork that could be coloured in by patients, parents and visiting family, providing therapeutic relief and distraction to those sitting and waiting for endless hours in hospital.
Lisa’s original design idea was to draw smiling nurses and doctors, hospital beds and machines but it occurred to her that these were things the children and their families were seeing all the time. Brighton is full of iconic landmarks, colour and interest. On a good clear day, the hospital provides amazing views of the Brighton seafront and pier. So the idea to include these along other aspects of Brighton seemed an obvious starting point.
The first piece of artwork has been installed at Brighton Children’s hospital, Level 9 Oncology ward and has been beautifully completed. Nurses have commented that both patients and parents have really got involved. It has proved to be a very therapeutic activity for the whole family with even a number of nurses and doctors joining in too. A further 6 canvasses will be installed in the coming weeks.
Looking ahead Lisa is now working on digital copies to be made available to download. She has also started to create bespoke drawings most recently one for a camping event. “I was asked by a friend of mine to create something for the children as an activity during her camping party. It was great fun drawing something that the children could all get involved in, creating a lovely memorable piece of art”.
The 2nd May marked 3 years since Erin’s diagnosis. Lisa is reflective about this, “In some ways it seems so long ago and in others not so long. Those emotions and worries are still there. Looking back Erin had a relatively smooth journey even attending school during her treatment but each time she gets a cold or looks a little under the weather I get that panic that something might not be right. When Erin’s treatment was finished I was filled with questions and emotions. Was it really all over, how could they be sure? It makes you realise how much faith you need to put on the consultants, doctors and nurses. It is true they really do become your family. You have to trust, rely on them. These canvasses are my way of giving something back. A way of saying thank you for everything you have done for my family.”