Transplant patients find solace and hope through UK art project, each other

Dawn Nelson, a transplant recipient seven months ago, said she felt "isolated and alone" until meeting the group at UK.
Dawn Nelson, a transplant recipient seven months ago, said she felt "isolated and alone" until meeting the group at UK. Lexington Herald-Leader

The bold self-portraits strung along the gallery walls were alive with color and infused with gratitude and pain.

Linda Angelo's figure dances on a gray and cracked field representing life's ever-changing challenges. But emblazoned across the middle of the image is a declaration that she lives her life joyously, a life made possible by a donated liver, "for both of us."

Inked onto Jim Halcomb's portrait were the names of his wife, his children and grandchildren — people he would never have had the chance to love if the 69-year-old hadn't received a kidney transplant in 1973.

Angelo and Halcomb were among eight transplant patients who spent an intense week in a gallery at the University of Kentucky creating full-sized self-portraits through a process called body mapping.

Under the guidance of Kenyan-based artist Xavier Verhoest, the group went through a process that was equal parts art project and therapy. The goal, Verhoest said, was to help the patients work through the complicated emotions that come with gaining a new life through the death of another. The works went on display at University of Kentucky Hospital on Friday.

Verhoest came to the project through Ruth Hunt Wood, whose foundation has sponsored an artist-in-residence program for Kenyan artists at UK since 2001.

Verhoest's previous workshops have been with AIDs patients. AIDS patients and transplant patients, because of the isolation they feel, are groups whose voice are often not heard, he said.

The importance of the group's interaction as they share their stories is equal to the "transformative expression of the drawing or painting," he said.

For several hours Thursday the group talked about the meaning of the body mapping experience. The gratitude they felt for their donors was palatable as was the relief in finding kindred spirits who could understand their journey.

It's been just seven months since Dawn Nelson, her body ravaged by lupus, received a second chance at life through a heart and lung transplant. She said before the project she didn't know anyone who'd received a transplant. "I felt isolated and alone until I met you," she told the group as she stood before her portrait. "For a long time I felt like a prisoner in my body," said Nelson, 29, who went on to say she felt a responsibility to make the most with her second chance at life because of the sacrifice her donor had made.

In Teresa Schladt's image, her hands were cupped and stretched toward the heavens cradling a strand of pearls. The mother of the donor who gave her a liver was named Pearly. A strand of ivy curled across her body in the place where her liver is because ivy can grow through anything.

"No cameras" she said, with a grin. Then the 51-year-old lifted her shirt to show off the brilliantly colored ivy tattoo that stretched across her mid-section to cover her transplant scar.

All the portraits and all of the stories included a tribute to the donors.

"There are no words to express how I feel about my donor," said Schladt, with tears in her eyes. Her canvas was filled with dozens of stars, each bearing the name of someone who helped her through the transplant.

Some, like Dr. Chuck Shelton, 51, knew their donor's story well. He felt a kinship with his heart donor, Caleb, for many reasons including their shared love of the bass guitar, he said.

Others, like Angelo, 66, had not been able to connect with her donor's family. But, she said, she hoped that somehow they would see the image she created and take solace in the good their loved one had done.

"I would be thrilled to imagine that they might see it," she said.

There are plans to make the artwork into a book and postcards that can be shared with transplant survivors and those on organ waiting lists.

Donna Sloan, the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates client services coordinator at UK HealthCare, asked each member of the group if they would be willing to donate their original work for permanent display after the exhibit at the hospital ends Feb. 24.

The portraits are valuable not only to other patients and donor families but also to the medical professionals who help deal with the harvesting of organs, even the staff at the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates, she said. "This will affirm for us the value of what we do every day."

All eight agreed to donate their work. Nelson, the youngest, seemed to capture the tone of their decision. She said she didn't need the canvas to carry with her the lessons she'd learned during the workshop.

Those, she said, laying her hand over heart, "I carry in here."

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Xavier Verhoest's body mapping project:

Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates:

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