I grew up as a musical theater nerd—a performance artist. I doodled in my assignment notebooks, but I would never dream of taking an art class. That just wasn’t what I did. At 18 years old, I knew who I was. I was a theater girl.
But sometimes, life has other plans. In 2005, I had just gotten my college acceptance letters. It was the night of our family Passover Seder – a favorite holiday of mine, reminding me of Spring, renewal, redemption, and good things to come.
And then I felt something that I had never experienced before. A stomach ache. A simple stomach ache that escalated into excruciating pain, never ceasing and only growing worse for two entire days. As the pain grew more and more intense, my father drove me to the emergency room for a routine x-ray, although my physician reassured us that it was only gas.
On the way to the hospital, (as my mother has told me) my cheeks suddenly puffed up like a chipmunk, and I collapsed as soon as I tried to get out of the car. Then I don’t remember anything else but the physical sensations of awful pain.
All I remember is gradually waking up from a coma months later, faced with a crowd of doctors who told me I had no stomach anymore. On top of I couldn’t eat or drink anything, and they didn’t know when or if I’d ever be able to again.
I survived because of my strong body, my amazing surgeons, and incredibly supportive family. But most importantly, I survived by creating hope, one day at a time. I started a chocolate business, starred in shows, discovered painting, taught nursery school, learned karate, got my yoga certification, wrote a musical comedy about my life, kept a sense of humor, and hoped that every day might get better. After 27 surgeries, I was miraculously reconstructed with my remaining intestines. But for six of the past ten years, I was unable to eat or drink a drop, not even an ice cube.
So many blessings came from this “detour” in my life. Once I was able to have my first bite of food, life finally seemed enjoyable – I could eat, and I thought any surgeries were a distant memory, I went to California on vacation, and suddenly my wound ruptured.
I was immediately air-vacced to Yale Medical Center. Once again, I was told that I could not eat or drink so the wound could heal. Determined to help me pass the time, my mother went home and gathered every scrap of fabric she could find, an old set of acrylics, and a glue gun.
When I finally got out of self-pity mode, I picked up a paintbrush, and suddenly my world was transformed. Every day, I worked feverishly in my hospital bed, gluing, painting, and letting my imagination set me free. Every day I would create a new work of art, a new source of hope, and display it outside my hospital room. Soon, nurses and even mobile patients would stroll by my room to see what I had created.
Sometimes, I consider it a blessing that I have no formal art training. Whatever I paint, I create from the heart. For me, art is healing. In the process of creating, I find myself and learn lessons along the way. How did art help me? Through this creativity, I discovered a voice. It was a voice I could recognize: the Amy that was there before dozens of surgeries, the passionate part of me that no medical intervention could surgically remove. For me, painting was one more step toward feeling human again.
Art was my way of documenting my life and pinpointing my soul at a time when I wasn’t sure who I was or what I was feeling. Making art inspired me with the courage to put myself out there and emboldened me with the confidence that I was a person and not just a patient.
My life had changed, but my Self was still vital as ever—in whatever colors I dipped my brush in. When I completed my pieces, I felt like I had not only gotten out my frustrations and worry but also found a place of joy and gratitude. I would put each canvas outside my hospital room, and soon the unit began to catch on, even taking patients by my room to see what I had created that day. I was sustaining my aliveness and inspiring others, which filled me with unanticipated meaning and satisfaction.
How does art help me now? When identifying as a “patient” for so many years made me lose a sense of who I was, the paint picked up where I had left off and created vivid worlds that I didn’t even know I had within me. Art continues to heal me where words can’t. I’m able to share my heart with the world in a way I can’t always do with words. Through my art, I have shared my message of hope, strength and finding gratitude in the beautiful detours that life takes us on. I see that art can have an impact. It can cause people to walk away transformed, or at least with a new thought in their minds, a new breath in their bodies. Art connects people – it reaches to every kind of learner and catches at the heart. Art has the power to change people by prompting self-reflection. Any opportunity to see things differently is an opportunity for change. Art keeps our society evolving, while still keeping its heart.
Or should I say…heART.