Art in the waiting room – The Spinoff

Posted: May 11, 2020 at 1:44 am

Megan Dunn takes a long look at the art in the Auckland Hospital collection and finds out that yes, there is art, even in intensive care but the price of seeing it is everything.

I got the pamphlet in the mail back in January. It says after someone close to you dies it is natural to:

The day the pamphlet arrived I splayed it open and looked at the photo inside: a network of hands holding other hands. Cropped close. Just linked hands held in support of one another. Beneath the photo: we grieve as deeply as we love.

I am unable to return to normal services.

Painting from collection donated by the Art Komiti of Aucklands Paremoremo Prison

I had noticed art in waiting rooms before, not art with a capital A, not the kind of art that an art writer such as myself would bother to write about, because art like so much else in our society has its hierarchy. Contemporary art is a high-stakes game; who you write about is as important as what you say. Who cares about the art in the waiting room? Lets abbreviate: who cares?

Me. Ive had cause to think about it because last year Mums cancer returned from outer space. Shed been in remission for 17 years, which might be a national record for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood. Ive never really understood what her cancer is, just that she beat it first time round, and, last July, the cancer cell count was up. Then she started chemo.

Im not coping, Im just not coping, Mum called after the first round, in tears.

Have you eaten anything?

No. I dont feel like eating.

It was the dex. The specialist, a blonde in a miniskirt and long black boots, said, Thatll be the dex. Short for dexamethasone, a steroid. Another bitter pill to swallow. At that point Mum had to take up to 10 pills a day. I looked at the specialist. I was angry. Mums not coping. I had flown to Auckland to join Mum for her next haematology appointment.

But what art could I prescribe? Optimism matters, but art isnt always soothing or kind.

Im lucky I have a chance of getting better, Mum said. True. Her prognosis was good.

We went upstairs for her second round of chemo. The nurse in blue gown, gloves and a shower cap wheeled it around in a mauve container, hooked it on a drip, and inserted the port into Mums vein.

Other patients stretched out on beds like La-Z-Boys, skin drained. They too were waiting, but looked like they didnt have a chance of getting better.

I stared into the little office next to Mums chair. Harried papers on the desk; a PC lit up like a bright face, ready to supply details, cheer, whatever counts most. On the wall, an original painting of a phutukawa tree. I call it original but the concept wasnt. The sea peeked out of the background, the sky bluer than the sea. The oils had been used with little mixing, but I didnt mind that painting of the beach in summer rudely lit up by the phutukawa tree, the needles burst open in the leaves, red as fireworks.

The nurses are very nice here, Mum said.

Niceness counts like stem cells it has a tally.

That was quick, I said.

It really doesnt take long.

I wondered how long the painting took the artist. Guessing from the paint application, not long, but longer than it takes a dose of chemo to run into your veins.

I wanted to ask the nurse: who bought that painting? Who is the artist? Who put that there? But I was too shy. Why stop this real raw moment, for an intellectual aside, a detour into the art we look at it when were waiting to get better or to see how much worse it can get?

The painting of the phutukawa tree in summer yields its bouquet. Just be.


Mum and I got lost en route to blood work. The hospital has an art collection in its corridors that must be maintained by someone, however irregularly. We passed a Claudia Pond Eyley print black lines of plants, bright colours, a Pacific infusion abandoned along a corridor. A trio of photographs of flowers. Where are we? Is it this the way? They need to give better directions. Then, in a gangway, a pair of large, textured, brown abstracts, neither good nor bad, just out of time, like photos of your parents when they were young, in the fashions of the day. Those sideburns. What chops! Mums perm. Dads flares. A big Pat Hanly painting called Vacation was by the escalator. I meant to come back, retrace my steps, and find all this art again. And I did come back, but by then everything had changed.

I dont want to write what comes next, because I dont want the wait to be over. Waiting is a comfort in its own sad way. Just wait and see.

The sea. Waves lap in and out. I see it whenever I attend my doctors surgery above Courtenay Place. Piha is by the Korean-born photographer Jae Hoon Lee. Its moved around the surgery over the years. Now its in the waiting room above a line of plastic chairs. Whoever bought it must have thought it was soothing and anaesthetic, a balm for a worried soul like mine.

What do you want to see when you go for a smear test, or hold a baby that wont go the fuck to sleep, or wait with your partner for test results, a prognosis, a new vaccine?

I thought Ill wait to write about the art at the doctors surgery or the hospital. Or the dentist, though I have not been to the dentist in ages, no cash, so Ill wait. How much art is in your life? How many fillings? Do you have art at home? If so, what? Where did you get it? At what price?

In the waiting room, I dont blame you if you dont want to look at something difficult and ugly or think about something hard. If youre just after a good view, Arent we all?

At my doctors surgery Pihahangs near a plastic container for pamphlets, ruffled in waves.

For every problem there is a pamphlet.

The pamphlet that arrived in the mail in January is titled Department of Critical Care Medicine Bereavement Follow-up Service.

Piha in situ at Courtenay Medical, Wellington

The waiting room isnt just literal, but it is literal too. I know because the last time I was there I got a hot chocolate from the machine. Warm, syrupy. No art, just a TV on the wall.

At the haematology department, I watched a dad sitting with his young daughter on his lap. Her mind looked far away. She waited with the patience of one who has waited before. Then her mum appeared in a turban. I looked at this young mother, I had no idea what cancer of the blood she had, but I really hoped she had a chance of getting better.

Two in 100 people die, Mum said. Back in December she was waiting for her stem-cell transplant. She would be in hospital for two to three weeks. The transplant would take her immunity to zero that was where the risk of infection crept in but then the white cells would ingraft and her count would go back up. Shed signed the forms, accepting the 2% chance she would die. If theres not a bed on Thursday, it will be next week.

I wondered: Will there be any art in her room? And if so, what will it say?

The phutukawa painting in the office of the haematology department says shush shush, that lulling noise of waves from the beach. Dont worry, relax. Its OK. Look at the view. But the Jae Hoon Lee photograph in my doctors surgery says to me your hurt is timeless, the sea will exist whether we do or not, release your grip, whatever happens next will be surgically safe, emotions are never still, time is an inlet, the sea runs in and out.


I always knew that waiting was part of the problem. What if you wait too long? Then you cant get around to what you were going to say because you are:


Outside Ward 82, ICU (acute surgery). On the intercom, the number one has been buzzed off, pushed too many times. All other numbers present and correct. My mother is in bed 17, I tell the intercom, after Ive pressed the number one that isnt there and waited. Then I walked through vaguely yellow corridors lined with three framed prints, each composition a rectangle yellow, blue, orange lined with holes down the middle. They reminded me of paeans to the common household sponge. I stop at the hand-gel pump and sanitised. The art at the hospital is sanitised too but Im beyond caring. Too much caring and you move though it and pass out on the other side somewhere in the vicinity of bed 17.

At the end of the corridor past the hand gel, the Chen family have donated a small square print, red with black scribble, in honour of the ICU team. I clocked the gold engraved plaque, their appreciation registered on the wall. The painting not unlike the size of a fire alarm, but there is no glass to break open, the call has already been raised.

I got the call from the registrar on December 22 to say that Mums stem-cell plant was not going as expected and she had been admitted to ICU.

Ive been thinking about what I will do when I get better, Mum said, the night I arrived. She sat propped up in bed, on oxygen. Her face flushed, swollen, but superficially OK.

I sat next to her bed. Oh yes, what do you think?

Im going to come to your book launch.

I smiled. My book of personal essays about art and life, already way behind schedule.

What else? I asked.

I might meet someone new. I might travel.

Where would you like to go? I asked.

She paused. Maybe Africa, she said. I could go on a safari.

I nodded. Mum found it hard to walk up the small pronounced hill to our house in Wellington, sweated easily, mopped her forehead. Then shed wait, slightly panting, for her breath to right itself again, restart.

That night, I slept in the hospital. They say you can stay in my room at the Motutapu Ward, Mum said. There was no art in her room, but a wall-to-ceiling poster of a forest, kauri trees, dense, shady, green.

In the morning I got buzzed back into ICU. Mums arms and legs, twitched, calling out; face red, body puffed up; trying to unpick the PICC line from her arm, in among the beeping and the rising heart monitor, the oxygen exhaling. She doesnt recognise me, is raving to the charge nurse, who held her hand and looked at me and explained, Im just going some gentle reorientation work.

I must have seemed stunned.

Do you want to speak outside the room? the charge nurse asked.

I nodded. In the room next door to bed 17, I wailed, What is happening? Oh, what is happening? The charge nurse held me in place and comforted me, when there was no comfort to give.

Next the intensivist arrived in her blue scrubs, removed her surgical mask, wiped her hands with gel, introduced herself as Kylie. She wanted a family meeting.

The whnau room: the painting was donated by the Art Komiti of Aucklands Paremoremo Prison

The whnau room at ICU contains another Claudia Pond Eyley print on one wall and a multi-panel painting of a New Zealand landscape on the other. The mountains, a lake, smooth and even and still. A perennial view of nature, so calm, so undisturbing to see. I cant blame the hospital for containing so many paintings of the view sky, sand, sea, soothing, stretching, somehow infinite. A vista of comfort, comprehended.

I sat down on one side of the big meeting table, Kylie on the other. What is your understanding of your mothers condition? she asked. I rattled off the facts while an accompanying nurse took notes.

Mum had come in for a stem-cell transplant. She had caught pneumonia at a point in the process when she had no natural immunity. She had developed delirium. Her pre-existing heart condition had been set off: arterial fibrillation. She needed oxygen support to breathe.

This is what the 2% of risk looks like? I asked.

Yes. Kylie explained that they couldnt provide sedatives like morphine as that would risk compromising Mums breathing further. They could put Mum on a ventilator if she deteriorated but that would not be a good sign and would come with an extra level of risk. What helped patients with delirium was familiar voices.

I asked her, Are you holding anything back?

Just that this is very life threatening. Her eyes, an expression, I can now only call grave.

Well, it seemed apt. I liked Kylie. The intensivist understood how much intensity was required.

The job title intensivist seemed funny to me because in high school I was always told I was too intense. We have to find a happy medium, a teenage girlfriend once told me. So I got into art because it seemed like a place where intensity went and didnt have to turn down a notch. But art isnt the only place for intensity. At the intensive care unit (acute) on the eighth floor of Auckland Hospital the intensivists are also at work.

All day the nurse at bed 17 and I spooned jelly or orange juice into her mouth, helped her not frantically unpick her PICC line, I just want to go for a walk! No, no dear, you cant get up. Mum, you just need to rest. Rest. A familiar voice on replay. Youll feel so much better if you rest.

In the night I noticed the print of a lone bugle boy down some New Orleans alley, presumably playing jazz. No plaque. Who bought it? What family? Who was lost?

In ICU the beeping was persistent, insistent. The constant sound of inhaling, exhaling. Poke your tongue out. Ahhhh. Good girl.

Were concerned about the delirium. In ICU, delirium can be intensified, especially in older people, by the strange sounds, lights, faces.

I forgot the ducks! I keep meaning to mention the duck painting, a watercolour, a good one too, of some ducks paddling around their pond, giving no quacks in ICU. The duck pond was donated by another family, with a brass plaque. I should have jotted down the name.

The eyeball is so moveable, up and over, it can even see things that arent there. Mum said her family prayer, over and over, eyes roving. We consecrate to Thee, O Jesus of Love My aunt clutched her hands and said the prayer with her.

One night in ICU I passed a large rectangular collage of brightly coloured red and pink buttons like some budget Damien Hirst pill painting. Never passed it again. Beep, beep.

Her oxygen levels are saturating nicely.

How much?

Fifty-five percent, then down to 48%.

Dont obsess about the blood count.

Look at the patient. Look at the face.

The face her not her.

My daughter in the car on the way to the hospital singing: Pop bang crack goes the Christmas cracker, pop bang, crack goes the Christmas cracker, we will pull it off POP.

Eyes popped, snapped.

Shes been restless.

You need to sleep.


I stop and start, keep typing the next line, then deleting it. I dont want to get to the end of this. I dont want to remember all the family meetings in the whnau room waiting. I dont want to chart the order of those disordered days.

What was I going to say about art?


I spent the first weekend after Mums stem-cell transplant in her room at the Motutapu Ward. Motutapu means sacred or sanctuary. Shed just had the big dose of chemo and was quiet, but not yet unwell. My aunt was going to join her on Monday Mums 69th birthday for what would be the worst week of the process. I sat on the bed, Mum on the La-Z-Boy. We said not a whole lot.

At one point, I think I can manage a walk.

We passed the two nurses stations. En route I pointed out the art. We stopped by a faded print of sunflowers, beneath glass, but the artist was no Van Gogh. The first time Id passed the sunflowers, I hadnt rated them at all. But that was before Id read that they were by Chris Corlett, a 17-year-old who died of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia 20 years ago. Sunflowers of Hope does look like it was painted by a teenage boy. Theres something gnarly about them. Large and abundant. Full of life. Except for the leaves Chris paid special attention to the leaves stippled with decay, a bit heavy metal.

Sunflowers of Hope, Chris Cortlett, Auckland Hospital, 2019.

We stood reading the accompanying framed text about the foundation Chris had started to build up a database of 100,000 bone-marrow donors.

Courage, charisma, strength of character, sincerity whatever it is that makes some people inspirational and very special, Chris Corlett had it.

Another Claudia Pond Eyley print near the kitchen and on the door a sign that read: Dont use if youre come from a red room. I was confused by it when Id made Mum a cup of tea earlier and had to ask the nurse, Is this a red room? (Mums room was not a red room.)

I felt the light weight of Mums hand on my arm as we looped around to reception. I showed her my favourite painting, tucked in a corner. Its colours were so bold that from the corner of my eye I first suspected Matisse. Then was embarrassed when I realised the artist is Harriet, aged six, who donated Flowers for the Leukaemia Ward in memory of her father, Ned.

Harriet may not be Matisse but for a six-year-old her vase of flowers is a masterpiece of colour and compression.

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Art in the waiting room - The Spinoff

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