1. Greener, Mike

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"Dying is not always beautiful. It can be full of sights and sounds, feelings and anguish that are not pleasant or necessarily comforting. Dying and being with the dying can be difficult, exhausting, heart breaking, and can cause such deep heartache that who would call it beautiful? These words come to me as I am working on a painting that represents the dying of an elderly man who drowned in his own blood as he hemorrhaged to death in front of my eyes and in my arms."


Patricia Joy, formerly a critical care nurse and currently a hospice nurse at Partners in HomeCare in Missoula, MT, has encountered death more times than she could ever count. For more than 25 years, her line of work has brought her emotionally close to many individuals who were at the end of life. "PJ's" way of coping is unique. She honors her past patients with paintings based on the experiences she has had with each one during their time of dying.


"I had been sculpting for a number of years, and then in 2000 my best friend convinced me to take a watercolor class for fun, but it mostly consisted of painting landscapes and/or naked women," said PJ. "It wasn't until about a year ago in October that I found my inspiration."


The instructor of the class posed a thought-provoking question, "What compels us to paint?"


PJ, a spiritual person herself, thought of her passion for working with people and the idea of possibly painting their portraits. For her time in class, she decided to paint her grandson from memory.


Her instructor's question stayed with her. One night, in a dream, she got the idea to paint the memories of her patients.


"I didn't have any pictures to look on to but instead decided to paint his spirit," said PJ of a past patient. "I realized that the painting didn't have to look realistic and that I could paint what the patients had given me."


What they had given her were lessons in life.

Figure. Patricia Joy... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Patricia Joy, RN, adds depth to the upper torso of a young boy she worked with in hospice years ago. (Photo copyright Mike Greener(C) 2005)

"My sister one day saw one of my paintings of a patient and insisted that I start writing about each one and tell their story," said PJ. "The paintings are only the essence of the patient, and after I started writing about them, it added a sense of completion to the painting."


She began taking her memories and stories of past patients and combined those experiences with her love of watercolors and sculpture.


"As I would write and paint about one, I found that more and more memories of different patients would come to mind, as if they were saying, 'Don't forget me,'" said PJ.


PJ first painted and wrote about a patient attached to a ventilator, whose irregular heartbeat had gone into a fatal pattern many times one night. It fell to PJ, working the night shift in the Cardiac Care Unit, to electroshock his heart back to a life-supporting rhythm.

Figure. PJ in her st... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. PJ in her studio. (Photo copyright Mike Greener(C) 2005)

"As I was preparing to deliver the shock, he grabbed my arm and mouthed the words, 'No more,' and signaled to the machine that would sustain his life," said PJ. "I let him know that if I didn't do this he would die. He understood and after mouthing the same words to a physician who entered the room, we granted his request."


The patient died peacefully moments later.


"I learned the importance of listening to patients and to have the courage to speak up for them even when it is not the standard of practice in the medical arena," said PJ. "It is vital for us to become their advocate, especially in the rush of emergency care. When caught up in the adrenaline and urgency to save a life, we must still our hearts and minds to listen and see with open eyes what it is that the patient wants and needs. This patient taught me that it is perfectly all right to say 'No more,' and that we must listen."


The painting, in elaborate color, shows the weak arm of a man reaching up to a nurse as if he is telling her no more. It is only the first of many watercolor portraits of past patients who have affected PJ's life.

Figure. PJs finished... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. PJ's finished sculpture of a daughter sitting beside her father as he passes into death. (Photo copyright Mike Greener(C) 2005)

PJ's watercolor instructor, Deborah Milton, said that PJ's experiences as a nurse combine with her newfound love of watercolors into a wonderful dance between the verbal images of her writing and the visual images of her painting; each one inspires the other.


"She believes so passionately about her artwork," said Milton, who has a PhD in psychotherapy and human development but has now turned watercolor artist instructor. "As an art instructor I try to force students to push the boundaries of their art and to find their visual voice. PJ has achieved this in her own unique way of combining her artwork and stories of her past patients."


Milton says that PJ's greatest gift is her confidence in her own work. "Her passion is potent. It's a positive one that tends to liberate other students who are around her into finding their own internal creativeness."


PJ is sharing a powerful series of portrait paintings with the community by exhibiting at art galleries around western Montana.


For the viewer, the paintings and stories combine to give a glimpse of what being close to a patient is like for a nurse in her field, and the life lessons that a person can learn through this care-giving work.


"So far, I am getting really good feedback from people," said PJ of her work. "Some people sit and look at the pictures, realize what they are and walk out. Others read every one of the stories and study the paintings that go along with the story and then come up to me and begin to tell me stories of their experiences. My paintings either open a person up or close them down."


PJ's interpretive paintings and stories about working with the dying provide an honest, open perspective of the process of allowing a loved one to die in peace. Visit her online art gallery at her Web site,


Mike Greener


Mike Greener is a photojournalist. Based in Illinois, he travels the world to capture still photographs and video to accompany his stories.