Art in the ER

I’m back to posting extracts from my new medical memoir, Healing by Intent, which will be published soon by HARP The People’s Press ( I especially like this piece because it’s the purest example of how art can be good for whatever ails you.

Art in the ER

‘Maybe I don’t need a doctor. I could just come back and get you to do another picture’

 Rachel likes to spend night times in our emergency room. Not as a patient though; she’s an artist with a successful downtown studio. It’s just that she finds herself high as a kite after a twelve-hour spell at her canvases and has a hard time settling to sleep. Sometimes she can come down enough by creating funny collages. She keeps a store of old magazines and thumbs through them till she happens on two images that make a jokey juxtaposition, the more absurd the better. Like the boy in bathing trunks looking up from the bottom frame at the runaway railway engine in the upper frame passing right over his head. It looks exactly like nothing’s keeping them apart.

But more often than not, shortly after midnight she’ll take herself off to our ER a mile from her studio home and set up her easel in the waiting area. She can count of there always being a few folk there, some of them waiting most of the night to be triaged by a nurse to see one of the overstretched doctors. She’s come to know that word, triage, pretty well. She looked it up once and found it’s been military parlance since the 1930’s for assessing the severity of battlefield wounds. Medicine’s fond of borrowing war images to describe its work, so triage has come to describe an ER nurse’s quick assessment of each newly arriving patient to prioritize who needs the most urgent help.

For Rachel this is an ideal ‘studio away from studio’, given that patients have only desultory conversation with fellow sufferers and short naps in unyielding plastic seats to while away their waiting hours. She chooses subjects to sketch who simply catch her eye, and she’s never met anyone who objected, especially once she started donating her work to whoever she’s picked out. This particular early morning, she’s just setting up her easel in her customary corner when in bursts a maybe-seventeen-year-old—unkempt clothes and eyes rolling like a maddened horse. He stops in the centre of the room, stares about him muttering, then starts pacing in irregular circles. He’s apparently oblivious to the curious looks of the other occupants, who suddenly have something to divert them.

Up to that point, Rachel had been planning to sketch a collage of the family of two bleary but wide-eyed grown-ups and two school-aged children stretched out asleep head-to-toe on a bench. But the abrupt entrance of this young man grabs her attention. She’s asking herself if he’s an addict looking for a fix, or simply worse for drink. He doesn’t seem to be hurting physically but he sure ain’t happy. Is he dangerous?

She eyes him a few more moments, then starts outlining a preliminary sketch on her pristine canvas, trying to catch the agitation in his steps, the to-and-fro twisting of his torso, the sudden swirls of his head. His contour begins to jump out from under her brush as she fills in the outlines.

As he turns for the umpteenth time the boy stops abruptly, apparently aware of her steady focus upon him. And as she looks up over the top of her easel Rachel realizes she’s made contact. She wonders briefly if he’s going to turn belligerent, but he simply studies her then edges towards her with no hint of threat. Though Rachel’s never encountered anyone who took exception to her quiet daubing, this could be a first. She unwittingly grasps her brush tighter, as though it’s a weapon she could use to defend herself.

By now he’s drawn within a foot or two of her easel and has halted mid-stride. He’s still breathing fast and still has that bewildered look in his eye, but he’s noticeably calmer. She slows her own breathing, lets her eyes drop back down to her canvas, loosens her grip on her brush, and resumes her work.

When she looks up again the boy’s once-wild stare is now one of simple curiosity, and it’s like a game she played as a young child. When she looks down he feels free to edge closer, trying not to let her catch him moving, then stops abruptly when she glances up. He’s now close enough to her to see the beginnings of his portrait outlined in black with as-yet-unformed daubs of colour within.

“That’s me you’re painting?”

“That’s right.” She keeps it nonchalant.

“What you up to? I mean painting and all that?”

“I often come here. I like it. A lot of the folk I paint seem to as well. They spend a lot of time waiting, some of them, so it gives them something to look at. I usually give them their portraits if they want them.”

He’s silenced for a moment, then, “I just came in here to get my meds. I have to take ’em, otherwise I get real anxious an’ all.” He’s starting to display some of his earlier agitation. “The doctors say I mustn’t stop taking ’em, but I ran out yesterday and I couldn’t get hold of anyone in the doc’s office.”

Now he’s so close Rachel can see the sweat on his cheeks and neck and the way his shabby tee shirt sticks to his chest.

“You mind me doing your picture?”

“No. No.” He’s getting self-conscious, making to smooth his hair straight.

“Better if you just relax. I don’t want you posing for me! Go on pacing if you want. Just take it easy.”

“Okay. Cool.”

He backs off a little, looks about as if for approval and restarts his pacing, but with slower and more even strides. Every couple of turns he’s back to gazing over at Rachel’s handiwork. The third time, he draws up sharp.

“Hey, that’s really me. Yeah, you got it. Cool.”

“You think? You like the look of it?”

“Yeah. Yeah. So you do this for a living, kind of?”

“Well, I don’t make any money here in the ER! But yeah, I paint for a living.”


He’s clearly blown away. Meeting a real live artist who makes a living at it is too much to grasp.

“So what kind of pills did you run out of?”

“Nerve pills. I get real upset and jittery without ’em. Like I said, I’m not s’posed to miss any or I’ll end up in the hospital.”

“Well, you seem to be doing pretty well right now. You think maybe you could last till morning? Doesn’t look like things are moving too fast around here. But I’d love it if you’d stick around so I can finish your portrait. Then you can take it home with you.”

“Okay. Hey, maybe I don’t need a doctor. I could just come back in here when I need to and get you to do another picture.”