A ukulele lesson is not what Cecily Morquecho had in mind when her daughter was transferred to Northwestern Medicine's Central DuPage Hospital battling pneumonia.
She expected the doctors and tests, she expected the IV and oxygen mask. But a noise-making session on a small stringed instrument was a welcome surprise as 7-year-old Madison Ratz battled boredom and the occasional cough.
"We were excited to have some entertainment," Morquecho said.
The surprise came on Madison's third day in the hospital, when in walked Kevin Smith, a teaching artist in a blue plastic hospital gown, gloves and mask, carrying a couple of instruments in cases and a box full of mini percussion pieces.
Smith is one of 12 teaching artists employed by Snow City Arts, which launched its arts education program at Central DuPage early this year. The Winfield hospital is the first in the suburbs to offer bedside workshops from the group, which engages patients in creative explorations of music, visual arts or writing.
"We offer one-to-one arts education at the bedside of patients," said Julia deBettencourt, program director for Snow City, which has served more than 19,000 patients since it was founded in 1998.
The program was established in Chicago at Rush University Medical Center and had spread to three other city hospitals -- John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center and Lurie Children's Hospital -- before finding a suburban home in Winfield.
Child Life Coordinator Dora Castro-Ahillen helped make the connection possible through Central DuPage's partnership with Lurie Children's, and she says she's already seen value for the 70 suburban patients who have engaged with the artists during 200 individual workshops.
While working with the artists, Castro-Ahillen says kids gain an identity in the hospital that transcends their disease. They become not just the child with leukemia or the kid with cancer, but the girl who loves guitar or the boy who writes great poetry. Art also helps release pent-up emotions and gives a break from tests and treatments.
"Immediately you see the value of decreasing that anxiety in the kids," Castro-Ahillen said.
Snow City Arts benchmarks its workshops to state and federal learning standards in the artistic subjects it teaches, so children who are hospitalized for a long time can recover school credit.
Teaching artists also spend about an hour of each day documenting the education they provided, noting what skills they imparted and which topics they covered. That documentation gets forwarded to a school official of the patient's choice with a request to count in-hospital workshops toward classroom requirements.
It was spring break for Chicago Public Schools when Madison Ratz awoke one night at her grandmother's house in Aurora, unable to breathe.
With school out of session, Morquecho wasn't concerned about her daughter falling behind while oxygen and nebulizer treatments helped clear Madison's lungs.
"She was getting a little bored with the coloring and the dolls," Morquecho said. "Then he (Smith) popped in and asked did she want to play music."
Madison's answer was a delighted yes. But deBettencourt says the question itself is an important element of what Snow City Arts does -- and doesn't do.
In a hospital, kids lose autonomy. They must rest, stay still, take their medications and comply with doctor's orders.
But participating in an arts workshop isn't a must. It's a choice.
"We are distinctively nonmedical. We are some of the few people in the hospital someone can say 'no' to," deBettencourt said. "We want to bring back as much creative choice as possible, starting with the choice of whether they want to work with us."
So when Madison said yes, she got straight to the music, despite a brace over her right elbow protecting the place where her IV was inserted.
"You've got that thing on your arm, but we're going to make it work," Smith told a smiling Madison as he handed her a freshly sanitized ukulele from a cart he wheels around the pediatric floor.
Madison got a dead tone on her first few efforts at strumming the strings, and she plopped back onto her hospital pillow in frustration. But she quickly tried again.
"If you press really hard, will it make it louder?" she asked Smith, her own voice quiet and airy as an oxygen machine helped her breathe.
"No," he tells her. "But it will make it clearer."
She pressed harder and got a stronger sound, plus a compliment from her instructor.
"You'll probably have even more fun when you can actually move your arm," Smith said as he packed up his cart of musical tricks.
In the outpatient pediatric unit, 7-year-old Jared Amend of Naperville got his own ukulele lesson, too. It turned out to be perfect timing because he had just constructed a cardboard-and-rubber-band guitar for a science project.
The learning continued as Smith showed Jared the ukulele, taught him its main parts -- the head, neck and body -- and helped the boy with his strumming technique.
"You're learning about vibrations," Smith told his eager student. "At different spots you can get different sounds."
Jared's mom, Lynn Amend, says her son visits Central DuPage about once a month for a three-hour session of IV medication to treat colitis, which he has had for a year and a half. Amend said the arts education program is a great way to continue exposing him and other patients to musical, visual and linguistic arts.
DeBettencourt said Snow City Arts is always looking to expand its ability to bring a creative break and an educational catch-up to hospitalized kids. The program serves about 1,000 patients a year, which is soon to grow to 1,200 with the addition of youngsters in the hospital at Central DuPage.
As the suburban program gets established, the hospital is seeking funding to build an Idea Lab on the pediatric floor. There, kids can detach from the confines of their hospital rooms and focus on having fun with instruments, paints and art books, all under the direction of teaching artists.
The space is imagined as a medical-free zone where young patients healthy enough to leave their rooms for a little while can escape to a world of color and sound.
"I love to see them be creative," Smith said, "and take their mind off why they're here."