Working on art

Waco artist Debbi Unger works on a mural in the McLane Children’s NICU located in Baylor Scott & White Memorial Hospital.

McLane Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit has taken on a new look over the past couple of months and is now home to illustrations of cute opossums and adorable sloths.

The blank walls in the corridors and over the babies’ beds are now decorated with all types of critters, warm blooded and cold. There are families of ring-tailed lemurs, tree frogs, kangaroos, toucans, pandas and more. If it swims or flies, lives in the jungle, the Arctic Circle or under the sea, it’s likely been memorialized on a wall somewhere in the NICU.

Debbi Unger of Waco is the artist. On Thursday, she was finishing up work on one corridor that included a big red barn and all of the animals you might expect to see in a barn yard, such as chickens, a rooster, ducklings, a pig, some mice and a horse.

Unger had always liked to draw, but had no formal instruction. When she discovered years ago that people would pay for her to paint she knew she had found a career that suited her schedule which needed to accommodate the activities of her three children.

Some her work can be seen in area WIC offices, where healthy vegetables morph into athletes, like the broccoli soccer player.

“When you’re self-employed and someone asks if you can do something, you say ‘yes,’” she said. “That’s how she ended up becoming a master of the abstract for a client.

Unger wound up in McLane Children’s NICU, located in Scott & White Memorial Hospital, after Peggy Nations, NICU nurse manager, saw Unger’s work at Hillcrest Hospital’s NICU unit.

Unger works on the walls above the baby beds when the slots are not occupied.

“There are still a couple I need to do,” Unger said.

Nations hired Unger to do a mural over a NICU bed and liked it so much she decided she would take $100 from each paycheck to go toward more murals.

“Facebook is incredible,” Nations said.

Within two days of posting the paintings representing her two charge nurses and their families, Nations had requests from family members, nurses, nurses who no longer work in the NICU and people at Children’s across the street.

Others working on the unit decided they wanted to participate.

“It was a happy project and we wanted in,” Cheryl Loughren, nurse practitioner, said. “It’s been a labor of love.”

Newborns in NICU are in need of intensive medical attention. Many are born prematurely and they and their families may spend weeks or months there.

The murals over the beds depict the family of the staff members. The panda family is the mama panda and her son. The hippo family of three, represents the mother and her two daughters.

Loughren has six children so her family is illustrated by a school of orange and white striped fish.

“It has been so much fun,” Nations said.

The murals lend a sense of whimsy and provide families with a few moments of enjoyment in what can be days filled with stress.

A few murals represent families of the hospitalized infants. A nurse donated the painting of a lion family made up of mom, dad and baby, who the NICU staff called Lion, Nations said.

“Each has a story,” she said.

A night nurse had a family of marlins painted to honor her father who recently died and liked fishing for marlin.

The step down unit, where NICU babies move before being discharged, has a painting of the metamorphosis of a butterfly, which somewhat mimics the babies’ experiences in the hospital, Nations said.

To differentiate the baby animals by gender, Unger gives the girls bows and long eyelashes. In one mural the girl of the family is wearing a pink tutu.

“That was a family request,” Unger said.

A mural of fish in the main corridor was funded by NICU physicians. At the left there are three fish, representing the three fellows — two men and one woman, the fish with the eyelashes — working on the unit, said Unger. Facing the three is the instructor fish, signified by the mortar board it is wearing.

A respiratory therapist honored her mother with a painting of iguanas representing herself, her mother and a sister.

One nurse purchased a wall that now pays homage to the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle,” with an illustration of a cow jumping over the moon and the dish running away with a spoon.

When Unger completes the work the families will sign their art contributions, Nations said.

“We really wanted to make the NICU a place that babies live in, make it baby friendly,” Loughren said.

“This project has been a joy,” Unger said. “Everyone wanted to be involved.”