Janet Hull Ruffin is an artist, arts educator and poet. She is finishing a book of poems showing what it's like to work with critically ill children in a major cancer center. She focuses on hospital culture, the therapeutic nature of art and spirituality.
I retired from MD Anderson in January 2009 after serving as the art teacher in the Children's Cancer Hospital for more than 10 years. My position was special because the time I spent with patients and their families was not about diagnoses, examinations or treatments. We made art together. Currently, I volunteer with the Children's Art Project working with pediatric patients.
I used to work at the Harris Country Juvenile Detention Center, so I was accustomed to making art with children in crisis and to working in intense situations. Nevertheless, I wasn't prepared for the emotional ups and downs I felt when working with children beset by serious illness. I also wasn't prepared for the grief and anxiety I felt for their parents.
Shifting emotional energy
The creative process has always been my passion, and I'm amazed at how quickly the simple process of making art can shift emotional energies.
It doesn't matter whether it's painting, drawing, writing, dancing, making music, shooting photography or cooking. Whatever creative activity takes you out of yourself for a time will work.
To achieve that for myself, I created a short exercise I could do during my workday.
At lunchtime, I would choose a book from the library, sneak upstairs to the 11th floor, scratch paper and lunch in hand, and find a chair facing a window.
I would open the book at random, write down three words and three phrases from the page and then turn to another section and do the same. I would play with combining these words and phrases until something emerged. Here's an example:
A place under the moon
where bleeding bees
try to hold sucking things
In this process, words combine that would normally never be put together. Refreshing, curious or eerie, a "thrown poem" shocks the mind. It takes you away to sit under trees and smell lilac and lavender -- even on the 11th floor of a hospital.