Meredith Farrell, a Queens resident who has spent more than a year living in the land of illness, was feeling low the other day.
She got out her iPad and started drawing. Her finished product was a color sketch of a pair of lungs being kicked.
For Farrell, 36, an art therapy major in college, the medium and the message were fitting.
Farrell is an experienced artist. And she has lungs that feel under attack most days. Soon, she’ll be on a waiting list for a double lung transplant.
A former child life specialist at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, Farrell left her job last year in February after a bout of double pneumonia, complicated by an immune deficiency that left her unable to work.
On the job, she had carried out a wide variety of duties to cheer up young patients and their families and distract them from often-unpleasant medical procedures. She’d talk with the kids, play with them, answer their questions, arrange visits by hospital clowns and musicians, create a “Memory Box” for families of children who died, and do some fund-raising.
“The best part” of her job,” Farrell says, “was knowing that every day I made a difference.”
Now, she receives disability benefits; a supplementary oxygen pump is at her side all the time.
Now, she’s at home most of the time, away from crowds and the risk of infections.
Now, the giver finds herself in the uncomfortable position of accepting the help of friends and strangers.
Now, she employs for her own sake the morale-building techniques she used for nearly a dozen years on behalf of others.
“That’s the hardest part,” Farrell says, sitting on a couch in her Kew Gardens Hills apartment, surrounded by piles of books and clothes and other items she was packing early this week for a temporary move to Pittsburgh.
Farrell was scheduled to leave on Tuesday to await her transplant, and, most likely, a bone marrow transplant afterwards, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; friends will stay in her apartment during her absence. The hospital requires transplant recipients to be no more than two hours away in case organs turn up suddenly.
And this week the At the Top of My Lungs charity was to take over the fund-raising responsibility for Farrell’s growing medical bills from several local synagogues where various relatives are members, which had conducted individual drives for her since she became sick in late 2012. Her insurance company, after a long negotiation process, agreed last month to pay for her treatment, but many ancillary expenses are not covered.
The average total cost for a double lung transplant, according to the transplantliving.org website (2011 figures) is nearly $800,000.
(Information about the fundraising, and updates on her condition, are available on Farrell’s blog: friendsofmeredith.wordpress.com).
Once Farrell settles in Pittsburgh, her name will go on the transplant list of the United Network for Organ Sharing. Her Hebrew name (Rachel Miriam bat Shifra Yenta) is already on Tehillim lists of people who recite Psalms for her recovery.
“No family does chesed [acts of kindness] with the love, passion and absolute conviction” as the Farrell family,” Rabbi Yehuda Septimus of the Young Israel said in an email interview. “The Farrells are doers, not talkers.” His congregation undertook several communal initiatives for the wider community after Sandy struck. “In Meredith’s case, we have an even greater obligation than usual because of how much she has done for the community in general, and for people struggling with life-threatening illnesses.”
Friends in her neighborhood do shopping and cooking for her. Because of the oxygen pump, she can’t turn on her gas stove.
“How are you doing?” everyone asks her.
“I never know how to answer,” she says. “It’s really a day-to-day kind of thing.
“Everyone says to me,” Farrell says, “‘You don’t seem so depressed.’” Which she doesn’t. “I joke. I can be silly. I can be serious.
“I wake up every day and grieve for all the things I will not be able to do that day,” she says. “Every day I appreciate what I can do.”
Does she ever ask, “Why me?”
No, she says. “I ask, ‘Why anyone?’”
Farrell’s encounter with art, and with illness, began when she turned 14. She needed an operation for a tumor behind her left eye. Although the tumor was not cancerous, the experience in the hospital — not knowing what was happening or what would happen next — was awful. A nurse gave her some paper and markers and she started drawing pictures that reflected her mood. “It calmed me down,” she said.
She decided to become an art therapist. Being a kid in a hospital “was hard for me,” she said.
“Why,” she wondered, “should it be hard for everyone?”
After earning degrees at Queens College and Hofstra University, she started working at the Elmhurst hospital in 2001. She had asthma and some allergies, and was diagnosed seven years ago with potential lung problems that, with medication, were under control.
Then, on the weekend before Superstorm Sandy struck in October, 2012, she got sick. Pneumonia in both lungs, and adenovirus, an upper respiratory tract syndrome that usually strikes young children. She can’t pinpoint a specific reason for her body turning on her. “It just happened,” she said.
In the hospital, she stopped breathing. Farrell has “vague memories” of that time; she was on mechanical ventilation, sedated for eight days to keep her from pulling out her breathing tube. “I lost an entire week.”
She subsequently spent some time in rehab, lived at her brother’s home, coordinated some activities for patients at the Elmhurst hospital by phone, tried going back to work for a few days and realized she could not “fully do my job.”
Eventually she learned she would need the double lung transplant; hers were damaged beyond repair by pneumonia and the virus.
“I need frequent rest,” Farrell says, coughing frequently to clear her airway. Walking to the curb can tire her. “Ordinary chores can be exhausting.”
In her apartment she reads, does some artwork, posts inspirational sayings every week on her blog. She adjusts her medication schedule to maximize her energy for when she needs it the most — as for her interview with The Jewish Week.
Farrell and her mother have rented a two-bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, which has a large Jewish community. They’ll be there for Passover, joined by her brother’s family.
After the transplants, once she’s regained her health, Farrell says it is unlikely that she will be able to return to her old job in the Elmhurst hospital; the chances of contracting an infection will be too great.
She still wants to use her training — maybe, she says, something geared to the needs of fellow transplant recipients.
Her artwork will go on, she says. Artwork that will reflect her in better spirits. Artwork that will be a picture of health.