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Friday, September 25, 2009

Dark Willow and "73 Cents"

If you knew my husband, you are well aware of his interest in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was steeped in the knowledge of the Buffy-verse and wrote his dissertation on the subject. He often said that show dealt better with death than any other program on air. Oh, other programs had their moments. There was that Family Ties special years ago, M.A.S.H, and The West Wing. But Buffy was steeped in death, and for a show that at first glance seemed bubbly and filled with pop culture, it gave us the truest picture of the condition. On pretty much every episode someone died, but they were the unknowns, the extras, the ones there just to die. Buffy took it farther than that. This show would kill your mother, your sister, and your lover. Just as in life, no main character was safe. Although sometimes they came back. And they came back not quite right, as Stephen King could have told them. But when they died, and died without returning, it was as sad and final as it is in life. Fred often said there is no better media dealing with death then episode 5.16 of Buffy called "The Body". Buffy discovers her dead mother Joyce. Joyce's eyes are open and she lays awkwardly in death's embrace. This episode is all too real from its title to the massive sorrow of the grieving cast. Buffy did not stop there. Dark Willow was still to come.

In the sixth season of Buffy, Willow's lover Tara dies due to a bullet meant for Buffy . Willow loses her Tara--her world. She is consumed by grief. In her great despair, she floats several feet above the ground. She has literally lost contact with the earth. Her clothing has become the black of the witch or the widow. Great and terrible she's become. Her vengeance knows no bounds, and it consumes her. Only through the love of her friends is she able to re-connect with the living.

Some of you might wonder what this has to do with health care. It really has quite a lot to do with health. Buffy was not afraid to talk about dying. Dying was part of life. What really matters is how we live while we are here, how we treat others, and how important it is to stand up for what is right, even if it is hard. Someone asked at Fred's memorial service, "Will you go Dark Willow?" I said I would on a Twitter post soon after. I suppose in a way I did. I float above you on my ladder with my red hair wind-whipped, painting a world of darkness. I have lost my Tara.

73 Cents, my tribute painting to Fred, my treatise on the current medical system, is almost finished. In the words of Martin Luther, "What does this mean?"

The center of the picture is our family. My husband is positioned like Marat in David's Death of Marat. His eyes are closed and he is peaceful. Not quite dying yet, merely sleeping.

He holds in his hand a paper that says "Go after them, Regina." For that is what he told me to do. He said later that I was "pulling a Regina", which means to go all out, never stop, and never give up.

I am the woman with three faces. A plastic beautiful mask faces my husband. This is one of those plastic Halloween masks we used to wear as children. You know the type, with holes for eyes and nose. Your face became so moist underneath as you tried to breathe and yell trick or treat. These masks were cheap and well within the means of a poor girl. They did their job well-- no one knew what you really looked like. Beneath, unseen by all, is my true face. There is only one photo taken of me during the first weeks of Fred's illness. I stand at Easter between my boys. I am terrifying. My face is white and monstrous. Fred saw the photo. Over all the many years we were together Fred saw me at my worst. I remember this one photo he took in 1996 while I painted all night on a dress-up truck. I looked horrible--tired with no make-up and glasses. I wanted to tear it up. Fred said smiling "Don't, I think you look beautiful." Fred saw the Easter photo. He told me to destroy it. "That is not you; it is scary." Looking behind me another face beseeches the nurse for information. This is the care giver's face, sad and distraught, trying to provide help. My pose is the same as one of the figures from Picasso's Guernica. Note my body appears to be restrained from my husband. It is as if invisible hands are pulling me away.

To the left of the family triangle, my three-year-old Isaac is playing with blocks. Those blocks spell out terms familiar in health care EMR, HITec and ARRA. He holds an 'I' block. This stands for where do I fit in the system? Isaac's eyes stare out at you like an innocent in an icon painting questioning your soul, his half smile seeming to judge your true intent.

Above my husband, looking through the door crack is my elder son Freddie. His eye is scared and striking. He is distant and removed from the scene. Oh, poor Freddie, he suffered so. An autism-spectrum child in a hospital setting suffers. All of the sounds and the smells assault his senses while the sorrow and fear assault his mind. I remember the day we told him Daddy had cancer. He sat in his visitor's chair 9 feet from his father an began to cry. "No, not cancer, because I have seen those commercials on the TV. 'The race for the cure.' There is no cure for cancer, Daddy. You can't have cancer!" I remember the day Fred entered hospice and I had to explain to Freddie what that meant. He cried for hours and told me he was losing his "best friend."

To Freddie's left a nurse is reclining in a chair drinking a soda and using Facebook. She is not engaged in the tragedy surrounding her.

Above, within the room, is a clock with no hands...for time has stopped for us even as the rest of the world keeps going.

Beside the clock is the light from Guernica, now halogen instead of incandescent as we are entering a new age. The fixture barely lights the few feet around it. Darkness surrounds the space.

To my wife figure's right stands a nurse typing on a computer that is turned off.

She appears to not be engaged, yet she is handing me an important paper behind the doctor's back. She is handing me the MAR or Medicine Administration Report. I need this document to make sure correct care will provided for my husband in the next hospital. Beside the nurse, the oncologist seems angry and not interested. As a local child asked his mom at the mural, "Mommy, who is that evil man in the picture?"

He is talking on a cell phone. He is engaged with technology, but not for providing care to this patient. At his feet stands a ram symbolizing sacrifice. The ram also looks upon the viewer but seems to channel the thoughts of the doctor, and his countenance is malevolent. The computer stand appears to have branches that end in hands. The tree symbolizes the Tree of Knowledge. It is lifeless and is in part a turned off computer. This symbolizes a circuit of knowledge that is going nowhere.

Beside them to the right is an EMT tech pushing an empty gurney. He is crying. His back is slumped in grief as well as in the physical task of pushing the gurney. He represents the 46 separate times we were loaded up and sent for radiation or facility transfer. Even though Fred's hip was broken in one gurney transport and he was dropped during another, Fred came to look forward to the transports. For three to four minutes a day Fred could be outside, he could smell the grass, see the sun, feel the wind upon his face. Between March 25, 2009 and June 17,2009 Fred enjoyed about three hours of fresh air due to EMT transport, at all other times this bed-ridden patient was imprisoned within a hospital or living room. The gurney points to a window in the mural. The window represents that freedom to enjoy life and to hope for a future.

The little girl America stands to his right. This image came into the mural as the health care debates began and I saw kind, well-meaning people oppose health reform. I wondered "How can you be against this?" Then I realized they were acting like people who have been abused. She is a pretty little girl with welts on her legs, and she is standing next to a switch. She clutches the caduceus. Most Americans equate this symbol with medicine, but it the staff of the god of profit, thievery, and death. In using this symbol I am pointing out that little girl America is clutching that which is abusing her. She stares out at you with a sad countenance. It seems as if her eyes are asking "Do you see what is happening to me? Can you make this right?"

To her side we have a medical person tied up and standing in medical waste and red tape.

This is to symbolize how the waste in the system is tying the doctors' hands behind their backs. I used actual pieces of medical waste from Fred' s room as models for this part of the painting. The woman looks out at us her gaze impassive; she is staring. She is neither despairing or joyful. She is bureaucratic.

To her left sits our waiting visitor/guest. This represents a real friend who kept coming week after week. Very few people did this. He watched his friend from day one gradually fall deeper and deeper into sickness. He kept coming back. He went to five facilities and home hospice and he was there the day before Fred died. Note how far away he is from the patient. The medical process is distancing him just as much as the creeping shadow of death. Together, the visitor and medical person are placed in front of an open window. It is light outside. There is hope out that window. Outside in a stylized tree sits the blue bird of happiness. This is symbolic of the hope for the future, the love of the journey we had together, and the acknowledgment that happiness exists in the moment. The tree and bird combined remind the technology-versed of Twitter, and point out that hope for a better journeys exists when technology and patient care is combined.

To the left of my son Isaac is the housekeeper. I based her on my mom who was a hospital housekeeper at Bartlet Hospital in Sapulpa, Oklahoma for many years. She holds the tools for her profession. The soiled linen bag beside her is overflowing. The lack of staff in a lot of facilities has lead to trash and linens getting to this overflowing state. The sign at her feet refers to the slippery slope of the current health care debate.

To her left is a physician holding a sign for reform. He wears a turban. He looks out at us with kind eyes. He is the other, the foreigner who embraces reform as a right.

To his left are three figures at a desk. First we have see no evil (insurance). She is an angel/Roman god wearing a blindfold and carrying a blue cross and blue shield. Money pools at her feet. Next is hear no evil, a man representing small business with his hands over his ears and his posture in defeat. His desk is strewn with papers while time is running out. Finally we have speak no evil, a pharmacist figure who talks into a phone with a mask over her mouth. Pills pool at her feet.

To the far left a movie reel is un-spooling the last frames of my husband's life. The film reel represents the media as well as my husband. It is in darkness. But if light is projected through it, it will change everything. It will tell our story.

Front and center on the mural is its name, 73 cents. Coins are painted in this amount. This is how much you pay per page for your medical record in the state of Maryland. In Texas it is a dollar. In Germany it is 88 cents. In the US, you also can wait up to 21 days to get the entire record. Step back and look at this painting. It is large and painful and disturbing. No one is touching each other and they all are placed in darkness. No one is making eye contact in the frame. There is no communication. This is a closed data loop and the patient suffers.

The entire mural is framed in a stage curtain. Fred and I were both theatre majors when we met, and this is our story on the national stage. The curtain is the red of blood. Fred and I met while I was painting. And we parted as I painted. These are the strokes that soften pain. Sheets of paper seem to hang from the fly space.

They contain quotes to make us question. Quotes to make us think. Buffy is up there and so is Shakespeare. These quotes above are from diverse sources but all say the same thing. It is time to take a stand.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

To paint for a change....

I once said this would be a brush stroke heard around the world. I did not know how true those words would be. Reporters from the BBC, Al Jazeera, Voice of America and German television have been by to report on "73 cents." Newspaper reporters from Germany, Prague and The Netherlands have come for interviews. I have received emails from an international audience asking questions about health reform. This problem resounds around around the globe. I found out that it costs approx. 88 cents to get your medical record in Germany. Lack of access to records appears to be an international problem.

This week many lovely people came by to see the mural. There was a couple from Chicago, a man from Virginia and quite a few locals. They came to see the mural in person after hearing about it on TV. I asked them to spread the word. Please tell everyone you know about the need for health care reform. If we all act as a positive voice supporting reform, our harmony will drown out the discordant sound of the detractors. There are many aspects to health care reform. If we engage in civil dialogue, we will find common ground. The modern medical system has many problems that need to be addressed. There are those who wish to polarize this debate, and so doing would condemn us all. For the end will not elude us, and in the end we are all patients.

These are two new pieces about the Mural:


Thank You and Goodnight,