Teen patients use art to capture life in hospital

Teen patients use art to capture life in hospital
A self portrait by lymphoma patient Ruby Smith. As part of Seattle Children's Hospital's Healing Arts Program, Ruby used photography to show what life is like for a teenager with cancer.

In 2011, Ruby Smith was supposed to be a senior at Nathan Hale High School. She should have been planning her prom and debating which colleges to apply for. Instead, Ruby was at Seattle Children’s Hospital fighting Burkitts Lymphoma.

While Ruby spent much of her time lying in bed as she fought cancer, she was able to express herself and share her experience through photography, thanks to the Healing Arts Program at Seattle Children’s.

Now, a film she created to show what life is like for a teenager with cancer will be featured in the Northwest Film Forum’s eighth annual Children’s Film Festival Seattle along with work from other patients at Children’s Hospital.

The Healing Arts Program pairs patients up with professional artists to create film, music, writing and other creative arts. It allows patients who are stuck in the hospital to share their stories or even forget about their illness for a time. 

For Ruby, photography allowed her to demonstrate just how different your teenage years are when you’re fighting cancer.

From the day Ruby was diagnosed with cancer, her parents say she was not ashamed of her illness. She never covered her bald head with wigs or scarves and was open about her health with others around her. 

“She was scared most of the time,” says Katie Smith, Ruby’s mother. “But, Ruby felt no shame or embarrassment.”

But being stuck in the hospital, Ruby’s parents say the teen didn’t have many creative outlets – until picked up a camera. Using 35mm film, Ruby shot pictures from flat on her back, showing the world her many medications, the uneaten tray of food by her bed and her hospital walls, covered in cards from loved ones.

“She just started shooting,” says Ruby’s dad, Theo Dzielak.

Smith says Ruby wanted to share her story so that other teens with serious illnesses wouldn’t feel alone.

“Ruby was on the forefront of helping teenagers see they could be open about their cancer by expressing themselves through art,” Smith says.

Smith and Dzielak say their favorite photo is a self portrait Ruby took.

“I think that was the most artistic moment she had,” Smith says. 

Ruby died on May 30, 2012. But before she passed away, the teenager made a video featuring her photography with professional filmmaker Mike Attie. Her film, “The Hidden Shadows of Cancer,” is being shared with the community at the Children’s Film Festival.

“It’s spreading her memory and her art,” Dzielak says.

Ruby’s video inspired another patient, Chris Rumble, to create a music video to the Kelly Clarkson song “Stronger,” which gained a lot of attention last May.

Attie says he has enjoyed watching the patients work together on various art projects.

“They’re inspiring each other and having this dialogue within the unit,” he says.

Even if they can’t go in each other’s rooms, Attie says the teens will direct one another from the hallways.

Maga Barzallo Sockemtickem, a 17-year-old girl with Leukemia, created a video with Attie last year while she was stuck in isolation at Children’s Hospital for two weeks.

“I was completely cut off from everyone, and it was really getting me down,” Sockemtickem says.

Most of all, Sockemtickem was missing her cat. So, Attie teamed up with hospital staff and asked the public to send him cat photos through Facebook.

With a sound machine playing purring sounds and cat images projected inside a fort, Attie created a delightful surprise for Sockemtickem that allowed her to forget where she was for a moment. The whole experience was captured in a video titled “Cat Immersion Project.”

“I felt so reconnected with everyone,” Sockemtickem says. “I was really touched that so many people had taken the time out of their day to do this.”

Sockemtickem is cancer free and back home with her cat now. She’s excited for other people to see her video at this weekend’s festival.

“I’ve seen their morale pick up a lot,” Attie says. “They seem really excited to share these films with their peers and their family.”

The biggest problem with the healing arts program, Attie says, is meeting the growing demand for art projects adolescent patients at the hospital.

“Kids have really ambitious ideas of what they want to do, and it’s hard to say no to them,” he says.

Attie says he hopes to expand Seattle Children’s healing arts program to include teens in rehab and dialysis patients.

The following videos from Seattle Children’s patients will be shown in the Children’s Film Festival. All events are held at Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill.

“Sara Takes Her Leap into the Bone Marrow Sea” – Program: Small is Powerful – Sunday, Jan. 27 at 1 p.m., Monday, Jan. 28 at 10 a.m. and Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 7 p.m.

“The Hidden Shadows of Cancer” – Program: See me Shine – Sunday, Jan. 27 at 11:30 a.m. and Friday, Feb. 1 at 3:30 p.m.

“Cat Immersion Project” – Program: Noah’s Ark – Friday, Feb. 1 at 11 a.m. and Saturday, Feb. 2 at 11 a.m.

“Haunting: A Head” – Program: Shiver and Shake – Sunday, Jan. 27 at 1:30 p.m. and Thursday, Jan. 31 at 9 p.m.

“Stronger” – Program: Made in Seattle – Saturday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m., Monday, Jan. 28 at 9 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 3 at 5 p.m.