By Aby S. Thomas
Special to DNAinfo.com New York
A mass of 60 colorful butterflies in the still-unfinished mural flit across the fifth-floor pediatric ward's wall, each of them with a different theme. One showcases the New York City skyline, another butterfly has Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” on its wings, and yet another has red, yellow and green stripes and the face of Bob Marley.
The mural — which is on track to be finished by September — is the product of approximately 1,300 hours of work by professional muralists Robinson Holloway, Jill Alexander and Pamela Talese, who volunteered their time.
The three came together to paint the mural after a harrowing car crash that left Robinson’s niece, 10-year-old Emilia Victoria, in the hospital in 2010.
Emilia was riding in a cab with her mother, Sarah Holloway, en route to their home in Washington Heights on Nov. 29, 2010 when another taxi slammed into theirs at 120th Street and Broadway, sending them crashing into a tree at the corner.
Both Emilia and Sarah were rushed to the emergency room at St. Luke’s Hospital at 114th Street, where Sarah, although achy and in shock, was soon declared fine and was released. But an X-ray revealed that Emilia’s internal stomach lining had been ruptured, prompting immediate surgery.
Within the next three weeks, Emilia had to undergo two more surgeries to treat two infections found in the young girl’s abdomen. Although her family and friends rallied around her during that harrowing time, Sarah Holloway, a faculty member at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said their time at the hospital was "pretty miserable."
"It was much more intense than you would think," Sarah Holloway said. "People have accidents all the time and before I had one, I always thought it was awful, but you don’t realize how life-altering it can be. Also, to spend a month in a hospital when you are 8, it’s pretty terrifying."
But it was Emilia who surprised both her family and staff at the hospital with her courage and tenacity. When she was released from the hospital right before Christmas, a thin and tired Emilia was glad to be finally back at home. Today, Emilia comes across as a typical 10-year-old, with a passion for dancing, fashion and Justin Bieber.
While Emilia doesn’t like to talk about the accident, the scar on her stomach serves as a permanent reminder of that experience. Since the accident happened, Emilia has also refused to enter a yellow cab.
"I prefer not to be in cars," Emilia said. "When I am ever in a car, I try to be occupied because if I am not, I look out the window and look at other cars and then think, ‘It’s too close, it’s too close.’”
When asked if the accident has changed her, Emilia took a moment to look away and think, before replying.
"I think everything is more important," she said.
Emilia’s aunt, Robinson Holloway, a former journalist who turned to mural art, came up with the idea of the butterfly mural. Robinson, who has painted several murals around New York City, wanted to show her family’s gratitude to the hospital by cheering up the "dull and grim-looking" ward.
But what began as a simple project to paint colorful butterflies on the walls soon became a more complex, experimental artistic venture.
Over the past year, each butterfly on the wall was created with a story of its own. A Jamaica-themed one was created for the many hospital staff originally from the island nation. Enthusiasts of soccer got a World Cup-themed butterfly. Emilia got a butterfly emblazoned with her name on its wings; Sarah got one based on her astrological sign of Sagittarius.
Maryanne Verzosa, a child life therapist in the pediatrics ward, says that the mural has gotten positive reactions from not just the patients, but also the hospital staff.
"People are proud of working here now. When you come into work, you automatically want to smile looking at the bright colors," Verzosa said. "Everyone comes to see the butterfly mural, and we like to show off our butterfly mural."
On the first anniversary of the accident, the hospital organized a thank you luncheon for Emilia, Sarah and the three artists, who have been nicknamed “The Butterfly Elves” for the hours they have spent in making their art. Patients, families and staff expressed their joy and thanks for the unfinished masterpiece, noting the difference the mural has made in the pediatrics ward.
In a message to the artists, Michelle Schwartz, a volunteer at the hospital, wrote: "The bright flowers and flying butterflies remind our patients, who are often scared and hurting, that life will get better and that everyone loves them. You so generously transformed a ward that was once seen by the patients as dark and serial into a welcoming place that aspires hope and a brighter future."