When a community joins together to support and encourage those in need, an art project can become about much more than decoration, which is exactly what has happened in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Mercy Medical Center in Rogers, Arkansas. In addition to providing their NICU patients with the best available medical technology and nursing staff, the hospital wanted to surround babies and their families with hope, love, and community support. They enlisted the help of healthcare art consultant, Barbara Harriman, president of Distinctive Art Source, to select artwork that would create the hopeful, loving and supportive NICU atmosphere they wanted to create. Art committee member Karen Parker summed up the feelings of the entire art committee with the following comment: “When babies are in the NICU, it is such a difficult time for the family. They feel helpless watching their very sick child. The images truly need to convey hope…love…nurturing.”

The art committee did not feel that there was enough existing research regarding appropriate art for NICUs, so Distinctive Art Source aided them in their research. Harriman guided them through a process to determine and acquire the most appropriate, comforting and hopeful artwork for the NICU. Nurses and former NICU parents were questioned to find out what truly offered them comfort during their long, stressful days in the NICU.

Photographer Lisa McSpadden of Lisa Mac Photography, known for her unique ability to capture the personality of each child in her portraits, was commissioned by the committee to create a newborn portrait gallery for the Well Baby Nursery which was to depict the healing power of touch, as well as the community's diversity. McSpadden also assisted the committee in their NICU research by contacting parents of NICU graduates online who provided a wealth of insight and information through an exceedingly emotional look at experiences in the NICU. The following are only a sample of the responses that strongly shaped Mercy's final NICU art direction:

“… down the hall to the NICU, there were big portraits of older children (from ages 3 to adult) who were former preemies, and it was so encouraging to see them. I always looked for the kids who were in the NICU longer than my son, and I was encouraged to see them healthy.”

“When you are longing to simply hold your baby, the last thing that would have been helpful was to see images of babies in mom's arms. I remember the grim walk back to my empty room, walking by all of those rooms of moms that had their babies with them. My arms were empty; my child was struggling to breathe.”

NICU staff members let us know that after they have cared for these babies, it is hard for them to say goodbye, so portraits of graduates would offer daily joyful reminders of the importance of their ministry.

Susan Barrett, President of Mercy Health System of Northwest Arkansas explains the directional thought process for art in the Well Baby and NICU nurseries: “As the committee worked through the thoughts around a healing environment in the nursery areas, the concept of ‘Touch’ became the element of healing we tried to articulate through images. This concept resonated with much of what we heard from those we serve, those we serve with, and our own special experiences with all the situations that might be encountered within a well baby and intensive care nursery.”

After reviewing all of the responses, the art committee unanimously decided to commission McSpadden to create a NICU grad portrait gallery of local children which would be displayed inside the NICU above the din and bleeps of the machinery. Portraits depicting the joy and wonder of childhood would include each child's first name, a short summary of their birth weight and length stay, along with their current age and favorite things.

Commissioning a photographer to create a portrait gallery of local children provided an opportunity to not only involve the community but to also show their support for the project. All of the parents who were invited to have their children photographed responded with a resounding “Yes!” One mother drove two hours to have her daughter's portrait taken because, as she said, “I know how much hope these portraits and their children's stories will offer new parents.”

Mercy Medical Center opened its doors March 16, 2008. Staff and patient response to the portrait gallery has been overwhelmingly positive. Upon completion, Harriman reflected “being a part of such a dedicated, focused, and determined committee was an amazing experience in itself. The rich reward of hearing and seeing exactly the desired reactions from nurses and families, once the portrait gallery was installed, made me especially proud to have been part of the process.”

“Lisa did a fabulous job of catching the element of touch while meeting our expectation of being respectful to the diverse community we serve,” commented Barrett.

McSpadden found this to be an immensely gratifying experience and said, “As a children's photographer, my goal is to capture the unique expressions of each child I photograph. It was a delight to have a photo session with a child like Parker who was born at 25 weeks and is now a spunky four year old. Not only were the stories inspiring to me, but it was an honor to be part of a project that will be an ongoing source of hope.”

The overall success of the portrait gallery created a community project opportunity that will continue in the form of a scrapbook. Even though wall space was limited, the art committee did not want to limit the number of success stories told through portraits. The scrapbook project will allow new portraits to be added yearly and will be kept in the NICU for all parents to view. HD

For more information on Distinctive Art Source, visit http://www.distinctiveartsource.com. For more information on Lisa McSpadden, visit http://www.lisamacphotography.com.

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