When Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital looked for someone to design the hospital’s annual holiday card, they turned to Sarah Colby, coordinator of the Barnes-Jewish Foundation’s Arts + Healthcare program. Colby suggested they ask a Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital patient — a very special patient — Yvonne Sledge.
Sledge was both a patient at the West County location of the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Siteman Cancer Center and a former BJC employee. Most importantly, she was intimately familiar with the healing properties of art.
Sledge had retired from Barnes-Jewish Hospital after 37 years as a respiratory therapist. The last 25 of those years she spent in pulmonary rehabilitation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s pioneering lung transplant and adult cystic fibrosis programs. During that time, Sledge became known for using art to help heal more than her patients’ lungs.
Though she’d been creative her entire life, her artistic endeavors took off after one lung transplant patient’s wife, a high school art teacher, began teaching portrait drawing to other patients, their families and staff, during her husband’s daily rehab appointments. Sledge’s talent for drawing emerged, and soon she was sketching portraits on commission and taking more classes.
When the art teacher and her husband returned to their hometown after his transplant, Sledge continued bringing art to respiratory patients, with the help of volunteers and, eventually, Colby.
Sledge knew art could help pulmonary patients not only pass time, but also reduce their stress as they spent tedious hours in the hospital undergoing treatments and testing or waiting for a lung transplant that might never come.
“You can only watch so much television,” she says.
Projects included teaching patients to create mandalas, intricate patterns based on ancient spiritual symbols, and (long before the adult coloring book phenomenon) having cystic fibrosis patients color line drawings of roses, a symbol of their disease. The finished art often hung in hospital hallways.
Her “Transplant Teddies” book, a compilation of lung transplant patients’ teddy bear drawings, sold in the hospital gift shop.
After her retirement in 2014, Sledge cut back on her art activities to spend more time with her family and to volunteer.
Then, shortly after moving into a new apartment in a retirement community, she started having abdominal pain and began tiring easily. She blamed the stress of moving. But her symptoms only worsened. Testing first indicated a liver problem, but further tests showed she had an aggressive form of lymphoma. She was referred to Washington University oncologist Nancy Bartlett, MD, at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital.
Sledge says she immediately felt comfortable with Dr. Bartlett’s calm, plain-spoken manner. They’d fight the cancer, Dr. Bartlett told Sledge, but chemotherapy would be difficult. Sledge received her first round of treatment as an inpatient. She lost weight, strength and stamina. Dr. Bartlett told her she’d need to gain weight to be able to endure more treatment.
“Ice cream was about the only thing I could eat,” she says. “So, Dr. Barlett told me to go ahead and eat it. It was the first time I’ve ever been told I need to eat ice cream.”
The second round of chemo put her cancer in remission, and Sledge began to feel better.
“At one visit, Dr. Bartlett finally told me, ‘You can stop with the ice cream now,’” Sledge says.
Sledge had a total of six rounds of chemo. But her ordeal wasn’t over. One day, exhausted and in pain, she went to an urgent care. After examining her, staff there called an ambulance to take her to Missouri Baptist Medical Center. Doctors found that chemotherapy had weakened her heart muscle and put her in heart failure.
While the news was literally disheartening, at first, Sledge’s cardiologist put her on the newly approved drug, Entresto. Soon, she regained her strength and her energy.
Sledge admits it took a little talking to convince her to do the Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital holiday card. She’d been too ill to devote much time to her art in the last couple of years. But after her positive experience at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital she decided she’d have to try.
Sledge met with Libby Martin, Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital communications and marketing manager, to work on the concept. They decided on a card with the letters “PEACE” on the cover. Sledge would use the “Zentangle” technique to create the letters. Zentangle is a method in which the artist creates images by drawing structured patterns. The method encourages creativity, relaxation and focus — an artistic form of meditation. A finished Zentagle is an apparently simple image that, on closer look, is intricate and engaging.
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Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital is conveniently located just one mile west of I-270 in Creve Coeur, Missouri — a west county suburb of St. Louis. Get directions and maps.