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Renovating Ulan Ude Children's Hospital No 2 4/10/06
"Where have you been?" said Jennifer.
"You look like to have been to Miami Beach," said Yanzhima. "Where did you get such a tan?"
"You are a perfect advertisement for Siberia," said Olga, "Your face proves that we are not just a place of cold weather, but have lots of sun."
"Don't look at the violet light," said Ayuna about nine P.M. on a Saturday night a week earlier while I was touching up a wall in the orphan care unit of the Ulan Ude Children's Hospital No 2. "It is very dangerous."
"My eyes feel like they are filled with sand," I said to the doctor the next morning at the Republic Hospital.
"How do you feel now?" said the nurse after putting some drops in my eyes.
"Amazing," I said. "No pain. And I can see."
"You should wear dark glasses, stay out of the sunlight or bright rooms, and give your eyes a rest for the next three days," said the doctor. "Stay home. And don't use these drops more than three times a day, but do use this ointment."
After that I went home and fell into a deep sleep until I got a call from Mara about four hours later asking how I mixed the light blue, and then another from her fifteen minutes later with still another question.
Twenty minutes after that I walked into the second floor suite of rooms dedicated for orphans at the Republic Children's Hospital No 2, often referred to as the City Children's Hospital, where Olga, Mara and Ayuna were working to complete our renovation of three patient rooms and nurses station set aside for tiny children who have been abandoned due to the extreme health challenges they face; one of three priority tasks agreed to by the hospital's leadership. They and other volunteers, staff, faculty and students from the Academy of Culture had spent the weekend radically transforming these rooms following their previous weekend effort, abetted by many volunteers from throughout the city, who had brought an explosion of color to the main connecting corridor between the hospital buildings.
"I knew calling him a second time was a bad idea," said Ayuna. "One call maybe OK. But two he'd stew and worry and now see, here he is."
"How are your eyes?" said Olga.
"Better," I said. "The nap helped. I hardly slept the night before I was in such pain. But the darker rooms of the hospital are actually easier on me than my bright rooms at the Academy."
"Couldn't you close the curtains?" said Olga.
"There aren't any," I said. "Good on the blue," I said to Mara. "No one will notice the slight difference."
"How did you get here?" said Olga.
"I took the tram to Soviet Square. It was too bright to cross so I walked around it on the side streets staying on the side in shadow."
"What happened?" said Mara.
"Last night I was painting around what I thought was a florescent light. It was dark; half the lights don't work, so we had everything on. Ayuna tried to warn me it was an ultraviolet bulb, but I was tired, I had been painting for twelve hours and all I could think of was the name of rock band. Then I thought of those lights in nightclubs where your shirt turns colors, but the dangers of looking into sunlight or tanning saloons wasn't registering. I guess I couldn't imagine anything so dangerous in a patient room. The light switches were not marked red or dangerous. Nobody said anything or pointed out that we shouldn't turn on such a switch. Basically I sunburned my eyes, and face."
"When I saw his shirt was purple and he wouldn't pay attention I went to the nurse to turn off the light. He was only looking at it for a few minutes, but so close," said Ayuna. "You should go back home. So stubborn. Why are you holding that brush?"
"The shape of this butterfly wing needs fixing," I said.
I stayed another four hours to help finish the suite. The next morning I was back at eight to move our paints and supplies back down to the storage area and witnessed the incoming staff near incredulous at the changes wrought in a weekend. The previous universal pale blue and white at been turned into light yellow rooms with a decorative border of butterflies and flowers, and the nurses station now painted a pale yellow-green with the same border painted on the end walls and one image by each door. Staff and mothers of other patients were all looking in stunned wonder. Some were crying.
Three weeks earlier, hospital director and head medical doctor Bier Balkhanov said, " We have selected three priorities. The first is the connector link that ties together the original one hundred year old building, the kitchen wing, and the newer Soviet era building. Everyone passes through here. We want it to feel sunny and reflect nature. The second is the orphan rooms and the third priority is the four intensive care rooms where patients often spend several weeks lying on their backs looking at the ceilings. We'd like you to do something for the ceilings."
Discussing these priorities further, we agreed on the connector link as a first start. This is a L-shaped space with each section of the L about 30 meters in length and 3.5 high. The outside walls were filled with windows, so it had plenty of light. Each L section also had structural arches, giving the feel of a pavilion. I discussed ideas with my Academy of Culture Decorative Arts class and came back with suggestions for either a pale green wall and pale yellow arches, with bright yellow trim, or pale yellow walls and pale green arches. We also suggested installing on the walls paintings about nature created by children to reinforce the sense of a natural setting and to reflect the ages of the patients under their care. A committee, pulled from a cross section of the hospital, agreed on the yellow walls and our recommendations.
Since the connector link was heavily used weekdays, we began on a Friday spending the day washing the walls to remove and dust, grime or oils that would prevent our new paint from adhering well, a combination of student volunteers and maintenance staff doing the work. Early Saturday a small army of volunteers started painting, a mix of people from around Ulan Ude, coupled with staff and students from the Academy. Hospital cooks kept everyone well supplied with food and beverages, no easy feat as twice as many showed up as planned and even more on Sunday as friends asked friends to join them. This required purchasing extra brushes and my spending more time coaching or keeping people supplied than painting myself.
The Ulan Ude Natural History Museum donated the art for the corridor walls. They provided children's drawings from a recent exhibit of on nature initially culled by Irina from their staff and Ayuna from the Buryat History Museum; the Decorative Arts Students selected the final images. On Monday when the hospital staff returned in found the space had been transformed.
The following weekend we took on the three orphan rooms, rooms that were physically in rough shape, but more to the point, many of the young patients were living with some very difficult physical or emotional challenges so great that their parents had abandoned many literally on the doorstep of hospitals or orphanages. Thus for the staff, this was an especially poignant place to work, at times very emotionally demanding as I was to learn practically living in the space for three days (when not off being treated for near blindness). Here we used a paler version of the corridor wall colors and Ayuna's 8-year old daughter Iyana supplying the designs for a butterfly and flower border. The section staff asked us to expand our work to include a short hall that linked the three rooms, and we did so. The Ulan Ude Art School for Children, lead by Sasha Dugarov, donated the children's art for these walls. 6-8 year olds painted the six pieces each reflecting cheerful images of homes, cats and nature all framed in natural wood to match the new wooden cribs.
Volunteers, working over at the Republic Children's hospital where we later shifted our decorative paints, created the ceiling art for the four intensive care rooms. Previously we had agreed on the concept of patterns based on natural images, painted in soft cooler colors that would interweave amongst themselves. Since they were to be hung on the ceiling there wouldn't be bottoms or tops. The reason behind using patterns was to keep the patient's eyes busy moving, drifting about, but with quiet spaces and no intense colors. The idea was to both engage and relax the mind.
These paintings were delivered at 10:00 PM the night before my departure for Moscow and the US, so as yet I do not know how successful they will be or if some prove to be more successful than the others. The benefits of this action is to be determined and, based on the findings of the hospital, adjustments will be made as needed. All I do know is the staff on duty when we delivered the art was thrilled.
"When people walk into the corridor they start smiling," said Ayuna.
"Thank you ever so much," said the head nurse of the orphan rooms. "It has transformed the spaces. Everyone is thrilled and the patients are happier. It has made a huge difference."
"I have seen the healing power of art in action," said Olga laughing. "Sunday morning you were in such pain and could barely see. Sunday evening when you came back, against doctors' orders, and started painting, well first I could not imagine such a thing. Your eyelids were purple and you were in such pain. You painted little bits for a minute, but each moment got longer, and by the end you were almost painting back at your normal rate. It was amazing. Now instead of aspirin, I will give someone a paintbrush, some paints and paper tell them draw, soon you be better."
2006 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475