LEXINGTON -- Chris Lyons is a details guy.
In his exhibition of photographs on display outside the DanceBlue Kentucky Children's Hospital Hematology/Oncology Clinic, you see his appreciation for the details in buildings, patterns in nature and the shapes in light and shadow. These details are important to Chris, because it's the passion for capturing the overlooked beauty in our everyday surroundings that got him through a harrowing and prolonged illness.
Chris is a bright, articulate man; currently working on a graduate degree in environmental studies at Kentucky State University (KSU), his youthful appearance belies an old soul. Chris's story at the DanceBlue Clinic started when he was treated for childhood cancer. He was cancer-free and only going back for routine follow-ups until March of 2019, when he visited his primary physician with flu-like symptoms.
"My primary care doctor suggested getting some blood work done," Chris recalled. "So I went to the lab, got blood work done, we were on our way back home. And as soon as we pulled in the driveway, my primary care called me and said, you need to go see a hematologist and get to the ER."
Chris was admitted to Kentucky Children's Hospital where a bone marrow biopsy revealed he had acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Chemotherapy treatments started the next day. After three rounds of chemotherapy, Chris went to Cincinnati Children's Medical Hospital for a bone marrow transplant.
Throughout the course of his treatment, Chris spent a total of nine months in the hospital, split between Kentucky Children's Hospital and Cincinnati. During that time, Chris didn't miss a beat. He stayed up to work on his schoolwork, even earning a 4.0 GPA while he was inpatient. But humans need creative stimulation, so Chris picked up his camera and started to document his surroundings.
"Treatment for AML is intensive, requires a lot of hospitalization, and it's a tough disease, so the treatment accordingly, is pretty tough to endure," said Dianna Holtzhauer, nurse practitioner in the adolescent/young adult program in the DanceBlue Clinic. "During this treatment, you're waiting for your counts to fall, and then waiting for them to recover enough to where it's safe to go home. That's a long time in the hospital; it's difficult for anyone. For our adolescent and young adult patients, there's nothing there to really entertain them; their life is stagnant, and their friends and the world are rolling by without them. Chris was a trooper during this, and looked for ways to develop a coping mechanism, which for him was his photography and art."
Chris's passion for photography started when he was a child, when would he go with his grandfather to document the family farm in Waddy, Kentucky. Chris asked his father to bring his camera to the hospital, and on his daily walks around the hospital with his mom, he photographed anything he found interesting. His walks got bolder, venturing outside and around the University of Kentucky campus.
"My doctors were pretty lenient, and they would turn a blind eye when I walked around campus," said Chris.
"Chris took some semi-unauthorized jaunts around campus, but he was always safe and stayed away from campus construction," said Holtzhauer. "He was able to look at things in a different way, and explain to us how his photography got him through. It gave him something to look forward to."
At first, Chris used his photographs to decorate his hospital room. During a conversation with one his nurses, Joey Burke, an idea struck.
"We were talking about art in the hospital, and Chris had wondered why there wasn't a gallery for patient art," said Burke. "And his mom said, "there's a blank wall right there." It seemed like such a natural extension of what patients are doing to bring meaning to their lives and focus on the things that matter to them. And so for his art exhibit to hang on that blank wall, it felt like a step in the right direction and acknowledging that patients have a life, a coping strategy, creativity and a sense of being outside their diagnosis."
Burke called Jason Akhtarekhavari, manager for UK Arts in HealthCare, a program that incorporates the visual and performing arts throughout the hospital to create a healing environment.
"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," said Akhtarekhavari. "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 Chris in his room, and the two hatched a plan.
"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."
"I said I would like a patient gallery," said Chris. "I came up with the theme, 'Things I See,' because that was kind of what I was doing as I was just going out. And so I told him I kind of wanted it to be that theme, but I would like for it to be other patients' artwork, if they can draw or write poems. I'd like for them to have the opportunity to get displayed on the wall. And then they can bring their parents or family down and show them and say, this is my work, and these are the things I see."
In October 2019, Chris was allowed to return home, with follow up appointments in Cincinnati and Lexington. On Dec. 12, 2019, his exhibition, titled "Things I See" opened in Kentucky Children's Hospital outside the DanceBlue Clinic. A number of photos are on display, including shots of his family farm, UK campus and other compositions that caught his eye.
"Every day I treated Chris, he was dressed and he was ready to go, wearing shirts with buttons so we could access his ports," said Burke. "Those details matter, and it shows up in Chris's photography, these little things that count and have value. He and his family put beauty into everything they did."
Now that's he's back in school, he will have an exhibition of his works displayed there as well, and he has been asked to photograph the university farm.
"During this period of the three rounds of chemo here, that's really when I started getting this passion again," said Chris. "So it was kind of reigniting a passion. I was mostly nature before. And then I started doing architecture, macro shots, just trying different types of photography. My stay here is what kind of reignited that for me."
"The arts and the creative impulse is essential to all humans," said Akhtarekhavari. "And what Chris came to realize in his journey was how powerful that was for him to be well. We all have to find a way to express ourselves creatively. What Chris found by going back to that creative impulse, he nourished himself, and gave himself a kind of healing that traditional medicine wouldn't have given him."