During the four months Chris Lyons was going through his second round of cancer treatments, he spent a lot of time taking pictures.
Those pictures, a visual diary of his walks around the University of Kentucky’s Medical Center and UK’s campus, have become the inaugural exhibit in a patient art gallery located in the DanceBlue Kentucky Children’s Hospital Hematology/Oncology Clinic.
It’s has taken a long time to get here, but Lyons said he’s glad he’s had the opportunity to have a hand in creating something that will help other cancer patients show their artistic side.
As a child, Lyons was treated for a rare form of cancer at the clinic. He was in remission, working on his master’s degree in environmental studies when he started getting headaches.
“I was seeing spots and everything,” he said. “I had gone to the doctor, and she had originally thought it was the flu …. And then, they thought it was a sinus infection … finally, my primary care physician decided to do some blood work.”
The test results came back that Lyons had an extremely low hemoglobin level. He was rushed to the emergency room and kept overnight for observation. The next day they did a bone marrow biopsy.
When the results came in later that night, he knew it was serious. His hematologist had already left for the day.
“He told me he was at his daughter’s dance recital when he got the email with the results and decided to come back in,” Lyons said.
Lyons was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and started on chemotherapy. After three rounds of chemo, it was determined that he needed a bone marrow transplant and moved to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
For nine months, Lyons spent time in and out of the two hospitals — sometimes wandering the grounds to take pictures of things he saw that he thought maybe no one else would notice. He decided to call the collection “Things I See.”
Taking the photographs, picking out the best ones, editing them all took his mind off his treatment he said. It was a kind of therapy in itself that helped him get through whatever drugs were coursing through his veins at any one time.
One day, he said, a nurse told him about an employee art gallery in the hospital. Lyons wondered out loud about creating a patient art gallery.
“I didn’t want it to be just about my work though,” he said. “If someone had drawings, they could put those up, or if someone had poetry, they could put those up.”
Initially, the nurses helped him print out his photographs and hang them in his room.
Eventually, one nurse reached out to Jason Akhtarekhavari, manager for UK Arts in HealthCare, a program that incorporates visual and performing arts to foster healing in the healthcare setting.
“Arts in HealthCare is a growing movement, and there’s a growing body of research that shows us that the visual, literary and performing arts can actually impact patient care and outcomes,” Akhtarekhavari said in a press release. “We can see things like, for example, reduced length in stay or reduced use of pain medication. It can be as simple as a picture on the wall that serves as a distraction during a stressful moment, or art therapy where art is used as a therapeutic tool.”
Akhtarekhavari visited Lyons in his room turned gallery.
“We went up to his room to meet him, and we were just really taken with how emotionally intelligent he is, how wise he is for his age,” said Akhtarekhavari. “He didn’t call us up because he wanted to see his pictures on the wall, he wanted to share his experience and see if there was a way we could do this for other patients.”
The gallery in Kentucky Children’s Hospital outside the DanceBlue Clinic had its opening in December 2019. Some of the photographs on display include shots of his family farm in Waddy. He currently lives in Shelbyville. Other images were taken on UK’s campus and compositions that caught his eye. For his part, Lyons asked guests who attended the gallery opening to bring art supplies for those in both outpatient and inpatient settings at the clinic to use to create their own artwork.
Since then, COVID-19 has forced the hospital to put a pause on changing out the exhibit, but Lyons said they are looking at putting up some new patient art.
While in the hospital, Lyons finished his first year of his master’s degree. After talking with his advisor, he took a year off. But now, he’s back at KSU, ready to graduate in May. He plans to go on to get his Ph.D. so that he can teach environmental studies one day.
And, he plans to continue taking photographs. Every time he goes out in the field, he said, he takes his camera with him.
“I had taken pictures when I was younger, but this whole experience with leukemia has really awakened my passion for photography,” he said. “It really opened me up to seeing the world differently, and spending time looking at objects that I wouldn’t normally look at, or that I would have previously just walked past without giving any thought to.”