September 18, 2017 09:15 pm
By Christina Swanson
“Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong. West Virginia, mountain mamma, take me home, country roads.”
Oh, the feelings John Denver’s lyrics evoke with the song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” For one local artist, those emotions include acceptance, connection, and unconditional love. This song and all the other nature-based, good-sentiments from the album “Poems, Prayers and Promises” were cranked-up and sung loudly during her high school days in her reddish-brown 1970 Buick Skylark while cruising down I-95 on the way to Jacksonville Beach.
It’s that same welcoming feeling of coming home that Artist in Medicine (AIM) Barbara Holmes Fryefield has created in what is usually thought of as being a cold and sterile environment — a hospital – in none other than the lobby of the University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute (UFHPTI). Providing art as positive therapy is not a new concept, but this community arts in medicine program, initiated from a study resulting in a grant to various cancer centers by the LiveStrong Foundation, a nonprofit providing support for those affected by cancer, is unique in that it is geared to both patients and caregivers. An unforeseen culmination of her life’s varying paths, it’s been a serendipitous excursion for Fryefield to be chosen to set up this program for UFHPTI six years ago, giving her the opportunity to combine seemingly unrelated skills and experiences to provide temporary respite for those battling serious illness.
According to Fryefield, who knows first-hand what a cancer diagnosis means for a care-giver, it can trigger debilitating anxiety and fear. It’s not unusual for patients and caregivers to be afraid, dislocated, and traumatized when they come to UFHPTI. “Patients need to hear they are not alone so they don’t feel isolated,” said Fryefield. UFHPTI in Jacksonville has treated more than 7,000 patients from thirty countries and all 50 states, and has provided proton care to more pediatric patients than any other facility in the world.
For patients and their families, participating in art — something where they use their hands — can take the focus off the fear and lower stress, especially with a supportive community also battling serious illness. “As an AIM, I provide a visual art experience that enhances the quality of UFHPTI’s patient care as they and their family members wait to be treated,” said Fryefield.
For many patients, undergoing proton treatment may be their final hope for remission or recovery as they have already experienced surgery and/or chemotherapy and radiation treatments before coming to UFHPTI.
“When people come to the UFHPTI lobby, I try to provide an atmosphere of kindness, openness, and fun through art projects,” explains Fryefield. “I consider the art table, located in the main lobby, a watering hole for travelers who have made their journey here. I’m always so glad to see them because I know they’re getting the best possible treatment.” Fryefield is one of 20 plus other professionals and staff that support a patient’s care as they go through their proton journey.
Newbies walk into the lobby for the first time usually with a surprised look on their faces, with many asking Fryefield, “I’m here for treatment, I must be in the wrong place,” because they’re seeing people creating art projects, eating cake, cheering each other on or happily singing, a synergistic positive camaraderie where there would normally be silent, clinical energy.
Fryefield has shared her art therapy with a large percentage of the 100 people or so a day who come to UFHPTI in a ten-hour shift for three days each week for five years. A year ago, the program was expanded from three to five work-days each week and one other AIM was hired, so Fryefield now works two days a week.
“I am so blessed to hear beautiful words every day I’m there,” said Fryefield. “When patients have finished treatment, they look me in the eyes and say, ‘Thank you, you have made a difference in my life,’ ” and, ‘I was so fearful coming into the center and you helped me focus on the good despite all this difficulty.’ ”
Criteria for the art projects offered — something easily created and in a short period of time, for ages 2 to 80, understood by other nationalities, that doesn’t cause anxiety to do, and when finished looks fantastic — can be daunting and has taken some experimentation. Fryefield draws upon her experience as a private school art teacher for children with “learning differences” in grades K through 12 and her professional art career painting portraits and landscapes, to develop eight projects or designs that have been her “golden nuggets of joy.”
A popular endeavor for people with lots of energy and who tend to be nervous tappers is to create something useful with knit or crochet techniques. The plarn clutch or shopping bag is crocheted with strips of cut grocery bags or plarn using a simple crochet stitch and can be made in a few hours.
They are encouraged to attach a clasp that has special meaning, such as a sea shell to remember Jacksonville Beach, or a special broach that turns the clutch into a memory bag. For the guys and youngsters, making paracord bracelets are so popular that many get on You Tube and learn how to make more intricate ones and then teach others. “I plant little seeds of art and they take it so much further and are so proud of their creations,” said Fryefield.
Some of the project ideas come from the patients. Like 9-year-old Audrey and her relatives who traveled from Australia for her to receive proton therapy. Her family wanted to create a celebratory event marking the completion of her treatment, and her uncle drew his idea of a large chime hanging in the lobby that she could ring. Through their generosity their vision became a reality, and now every patient that completes treatment can ring the chime that provides encouragement to other patients.
It must have been fate how Fryefield came to the AIM position, which rescued her as much as she has been rescuing others mired in the atypical lifestyle of serious illness.
After being divorced for many years and raising her two sons, Barbara met Judge Peter Fryefield through Hank Coxe (who also married them) in 2004 and immediately they had a connection. When playing acoustic guitar and golf started becoming painful, tests revealed Peter had the chronic connective tissue disease scleroderma, or systemic sclerosis, which could be fatal, although symptoms vary from person to person. So the gauntlet of health appointments, tests, treatments, and medications began with monthly appointments with a world-renowned scleroderma physician at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Md. It appeared the disease was only external and in remission so the couple were married in 2007.
Over the next several years, Peter and Barbara were in and out of hospitals where she found the waiting rooms to be small, depressing, and scary. Eight years ago it wasn’t customary for both the caretaker and patient to share space in the exam room and as Barbara waited for him alone, she couldn’t help but be filled with the fear of his relapse. When Barbara noticed a discoloration on the back of Peter’s leg, a trip to Johns Hopkins revealed the disease had spread internally and there was no other treatment. Over the next year their lives would be filled by many setbacks, and life-threatening days for Peter. When the disease spread to his lungs, he lost the ability to breathe, and decided against a double lung transplant.
“Peter gave me the gift of understanding those that are diagnosed with a serious illness, and the ability to help them with grace and compassion,” said Fryefield. “I am so appreciative of his love, and the laughter and joy he brought to me. I have tried to bring those attributes to my position at UFHPTI through the arts in making a difference to those who find themselves in a difficult place.”
After her husband’s passing, Fryefield was physically drained, emotionally lost, and trying to find her way back into the working world when a friend heard about the newly created AIM position and knew Fryefield would be a perfect fit. Fryefield truly came to realize Mark Twain’s words, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
“When I look back on my life’s employment challenges as a teacher, social worker, adoptions paralegal, interior designer, corporate paralegal, and artist, it provided me with the exact skill set needed to be an Artist In Medicine,” said Fryefield. “Although I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, it is my experiences that gave me the understanding of serious life issues and how to accept what you cannot change. My inspiration for life continues to come from my deceased husband, Peter. Each day when I get out of bed, placing my feet on the floor I hear his words, ‘I love you, I want you to be happy and move forward with your life.’ ”
Fryefield says “until next time” rather than “goodbye” to those who ring the chime on their last day of treatment before leaving UFHPTI. It’s her way of acknowledging that life is a journey of the spirit and as such has no ending. “There’s nothing quite like witnessing the ringing of the chime and the corresponding applause of accomplishment that connects your heart to theirs and the hope of triumph,” said Fryefield.
Share words that have made a difference in your life by contacting Christina Swanson at email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
UF Proton Therapy Institute
2015 North Jefferson Street Jacksonville, FL 32206