Snow angel adds cheer to hospital ward
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Typically, a hospital intensive care unit is not a very cheery place.
But each holiday season, nursing instructor Sara Morrison visits the cardiac ICU at Charleston Area Medical Center's Memorial Hospital to deck the halls with a little poster paint and some really happy snowmen.
She started the tradition 22 years ago, when she was working the night shift in Memorial Hospital's coronary care unit. It had been a bad month for the floor. Many of their patients had died and the staff was emotionally drained.
Morrison and her fellow nurses decided they needed some holiday spirit, but their decoration options were limited.
"We said, we've got to do something to dress this place up," she said. "I went and bought paints."
Morrison, a longtime crafter, began painting the windows on patient rooms with Christmas scenes. At first, she worked during downtime at work. After she left full-time nursing to become an educator at the hospital, Morrison began coming in after work to paint. The job takes about four hours to complete.
This year, like most years, Morrison's designs have a snowman motif.
"Snowmen are my thing. The 'Frosty the Snowman' song, I could sing and dance to that right now. That's my song," she said.
The first window in the cardiac ICU features a pair of snowmen, one wearing a pink scarf and the other a blue one. Just down the hall, another snowman is ice-skating and holding a Christmas tree. His next-door neighbor is skiing. Farther down, a snowman stands with his arms open, sporting a simple message: "Welcome friends and flakes."
She begins her paintings by outlining characters with a black dry erase marker. She sketches out the snowmen's rotund bodies and pudgy arms, along with scarves, skis and ice skates, depending on which accessories Morrison decides to give her characters.
Next comes the paint. Morrison uses water-based poster paints, which makes for a quick and easy cleanup when Christmastime is over. She begins with a few basic colors - blue, red, green, yellow, white - and mixes them if she needs to broaden her palette.
She keeps her paint in tiny plastic cups, like the ones nurses use to deliver patients' pills, and puts only a little bit on the brush at a time.
"You can't get a lot of paint on there because it runs," she said.
It's important to get things right the first time. She has found that trying to go back and touch up dried sections only removes paint from the window.
Morrison begins applying color by dabbing her brush on the glass and then pulls the paint into long strokes. She tries to make the pictures pretty large, to make painting easier.
"It's a little hard to get details. Making the pictures bigger makes it go smoother," she said.
Once the paint is dry, Morrison uses her dry erase marker to add details to the snowmen's faces, usually a carrot nose and mouth and eyes made from coal.
Her designs are not limited to snowmen, however. One year Morrison was pressed for time and decorated the windows with wreaths and Christmas trees, which she says are easier to paint. She also likes candy canes.
Morrison is quite good at angels, too, but has to be selective where she uses them. Once, she painted an angel on a patient's window while the man was asleep. When he awoke, he was greeted by a large, white winged figure that appeared to be hovering in his room. This did not put him in the holiday spirit, so Morrison repainted his window with a Christmas tree.
For the most part, however, patients and their families enjoy Morrison's work.
"If they're here through Christmas, it's hard," she said. "They talk and ask questions. It takes the sting away from being in an ICU."
Sometimes, the ICU families make requests. One family asked Morrison for a snowman on a sled. Another family requested an angel and was moved to tears by the finished work. Another year, the ICU staff requested she paint a Christmas tree with ornaments featuring each worker's name.
Morrison said the ICU doctors and nurses also enjoy her work.
"Everyone on night shift was excited about me being here. They said 'She's back!' " she said.
Earlier this year, the cardiac ICU staff nominated Morrison for the hospital's "Heart and Soul" award. CAMC President Dave Ramsey presented her with the award at the hospital's February board meeting.
Ramsey told hospital board members how, during last Christmas's painting session, an ICU patient's granddaughters began watching as Morrison decorated the unit's windows.
Their grandfather had suffered a heart attack and the girls were struggling to understand what was happening, Ramsey said.
"While the nursing staff had taken extra time to answer questions and be supportive, Morrison found a way to let the girls feel like they were doing something for their grandpa," he said.
"When she got to his room, she asked them if they would like to help paint his window. Morrison spent time helping them design the scene and then allowed them to paint it.
"Everyone in the unit stopped to watch them decorate their grandpa's window and there were no dry eyes."