Sick Kids hospital creates cartoon characters

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SPARK is feeling a bit under the weather. Nothing too serious, it turns out help is soon at hand.

Poor Edward’s not quite firing on all cylinders either. As for Cathy, she’s a spiky wee thing, in need of a comforting hand.

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

They are just cartoon characters. But for the young folks who encounter the colourful trio, the tales of Spark the hospital lamp, Edward the medical notes and Cathy the cannula – part of a family of friendly hospital characters dreamed up to make a trip to the Sick Kids less intimidating for patients – could make the dramatic difference between feeling even worse, or perhaps not quite as bad.

Created by the Sick Kids hospital’s two artists in residence, the Whatsits family of Mr Men-style characters has just been unveiled to young curious readers who perhaps don’t quite understand why they have been taken from the comfort of home to a big scary hospital and who certainly have no idea what all this terrifying-looking equipment is all about. But already they – along with a host of other clever and brilliantly colourful art-based initiatives at the children’s hospital – are helping make the scary bits about being in hospital a little easier to handle.

From the wards where children get creative with pencils and sketches, poems and stories, to the artwork adorning the walls of the hospital and even the dazzlingly decorated machines which help patch up and repair little broken bodies, the therapy provided by Linda Cracknell and Cate James – which includes the new Whatsits books – provides its own, special medicine.

From charming poems and drawings that record young patients’ feelings about being in hospital right up to impressive interactive art projects that bring fun to the walls and can even help in treatment, the pair have helped transform bland walls and even the equipment from a blank canvas into lively and fun works of art.

So perhaps it should be no surprise that Linda and Cate recently learned their spell at the children’s hospital is to be extended.

It means they can help record in evocative words and vivid pictures the final months of the Sick Kids at its present location in Sciennes and the preparation to move to a new location.

Already one element of that particular project has pride of place on the wall of a corridor at the heart of the complex – a large framed collage which shows the Victorian hospital being scooped into the air by a brightly coloured hot air balloon, just one suggestion put forward by imaginative youngsters when asked how on earth someone might move a hospital.

“We wanted to illustrate the move of the hospital across Edinburgh,” says Linda, writer in residence whose stories and poems complement Cate’s artwork.

“We asked people how they could move a hospital, maybe to imagine it as an old lady who’s not very well and needs to move home.

“We collected lots of ideas: she gets lifted up by balloon, seagulls pick her up and fly with her to her new home, things like that.”

The result, worked on with children from Preston Street Primary School – one of the schools along the route from Sciennes to Little France – is the dazzling collage, part of what will be a series of art projects created by the pair to record the move.

Among them is a special poem being worked on by Linda, which will accompany a film of the journey a Sick Kids porter makes from the familiar wards of the old hospital to the glossy fresh corridors of the new one.

“The hope is it will be a creative archive of the current site,” she explains. “The current building is a maze but has great charm and fantastic characters. Our brief is to capture the character of the place and help transfer that to the new site in a number of different ways.”

Recording the move, however, is just one element of the pair’s presence within the hospital. Another is upstairs from the collage in the radiology department, where there is the expensive gamma camera scanning system, a revolutionary piece of equipment that can accurately detect a range of life-threatening conditions, such as cancer and epilepsy.

It could be a particularly scary device – a long, cigar-like tube in which young patients have to lie still while the scanner does its vital work.

But thanks to a clever artistic makeover by illustrator in residence Cate, working alongside the dad of a young patient who was among the first to use it, it is now a colourful ‘submarine’ that takes little visitors on a fantasy underwater journey.

The equipment was bought following a £550,000 investment from the Sick Kids Friends Foundation, which also provides the £90,000 funding for Linda and Cate’s work – increasingly regarded as a key element of helping children through their hospital stay.

“It’s a lovely environment to work in,” says Linda, who often sits with young patients and encourages them to write their own short stories, poems and odes to the staff.

“The hospital is like a little microcosm of society, it’s a warm and very welcoming friendly community.

“It’s wonderful to be able to work with families and the children, either by the bedside or in the playrooms. It is a special environment.”

Some of the children’s work ends up lining the hospital walls or is celebrated on the Sick Kids’ Friends Facebook page.

Sometimes the youngsters are inspired by the hospital surroundings and on other occasions, explains Cate, they simply let their imaginations flow.

“A lot of the time in hospital, children are quite bored,” she adds.

“And while the play specialists do a great job with them, we can give them something a little different and give the parents a break while we do it.

“Children who are waiting for surgery often can’t eat, they might be anxious and they need to be distracted. That’s when it’s really nice to sit with them and have a little fun. Their imaginations are amazing.”

Artists in Residence project manager Fiona O’Sullivan says the pair’s presence in the hospital over the past 18 months has been an 
important element in helping make young patients and their visitors’ experiences less clinical.

They have been helped by the contribution of other artists who have visited for short periods to work on specific projects also funded by the Friends Foundation.

“It’s about making the hospital less scary and more comfortable,” she says. “And the new series of mini books that have just been launched are just one element of that.”

The first three books in what will be a series of illustrated short stories have just gone on sale. Each features a different character based on a familiar item within the hospital and takes young readers on a brief, fun journey which is aimed at making their stay at the Sick Kids less intimidating.

Eventually the initial three characters – Edward, Cathy and Spark – will be joined by others inspired by equipment and the personalities who make the hospital work. While they are written specifically for the Sick Kids, Cate and Linda believe they have a quirky appeal that means they don’t have to be limited to the hospital’s patients.

“The idea is to make children more familiar with things in the hospital before they come or while they are here,” adds Cate.

“But we’ve found children just seem to like them anyway.”

• The Whatsits books are available from the Sick Kids shop, for £4.99. For more about the Sick Kids Friends Foundation, log on to

Hitting the right note

The Artists in Residence programme at the Sick Kids involves more than only art and stories – it’s musical too. In September last year the Sick Kids Friends Foundation funded programme launched the first Sick Kids Community Choir.

Open to all Sick Kids hospital staff and volunteers, its numbers have since swelled to around 40 singers.

The choir regularly performs at SKFF fundraising events and on the hospital wards.

Journey in the secret garden

TUCKED in a quiet corner of the hospital is an art-based installation which not only brings joy to young visitors, but can help make them better.

The Secret Garden is an interactive therapy system which helps turn what could be a challenging physiotherapy session into a fun game.

The £25,000 system – provided by the Friends Foundation following fundraising from staff at Tesco Bank – was unveiled in May.

Children use a tablet device to alter images on a screen which takes them on an interactive ‘journey’ through a garden during which they are encouraged to stretch to catch butterflies, burst bubbles, make rain fall with their fingers and move around the room in response to the images on the screen.

“The Secret Garden is great for children who haven’t got that much mobility,” says Fiona O’Sullivan, Artists in Residence project manager. “It’s making a big difference in helping them.”