Learning Perspective


Jeff Bell is the Section Head of Illustration and Design at Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN. Jeff and his team are responsible for all of Mayo’s media design.

In 2003 I asked Randy McKeeman, Director of Child Life at Mayo Clinic’s children’s hospital, what he thought about the idea of me coming over to draw pictures for the pediatric patients. He agreed to let me give it a try.

tph1166014_07-web-mss_519851-revision-13I didn’t tell Randy at the time but I’m not a performance artist and although I knew I could draw fairly well, I was scared to death to do it on demand while someone watched. I had no idea what would happen, it just seemed like a good idea. A week or so later I began. I got on the shuttle to Saint Marys Hospital from the Mayo building with a nervous feeling in my stomach, a pad of paper under my arm and a fist-full of Sharpie markers thinking “what have I gotten myself into?”

I remember my very first little customer, an eight-year-old cherub-like boy in a wheelchair who was hooked up to a beeping chemo machine. I asked him what he wanted me to draw for him. He smiled, looked down at his fuzzy slipper-clad feet, wiggled them and happily blurted out, “I want you to draw my bunny slippers.” I thought to myself, “Thank goodness, I think I can do that.” I then proceeded to create a decent facsimile adding his name in cartoon balloon letters for flair. I knew from then on I could never guess what I was going to be asked to draw.


On one early visit I sidled my chair up to the bedside of an energetic 11-year-old boy who had just lost both of his legs. I asked him what he would like me to draw for him. With a sunny matter-of-fact expression he chirped, “Draw a picture of me climbing a mountain, as soon as I can, I want to climb a mountain.” I didn’t expect that. Through the next minutes of friendly chatter punctuated by the squeak of a Sharpie marker on paper, we talked about all his plans and dreams as if they were foregone conclusions. His outlook was amazing.


Still another time I talked with a boy in his early teens who had atrophied from the waist down due to a spinal cord injury. He was lying on his stomach on a self-propelled gurney. With eager eyes and his head lifted up we talked about all the things he liked to do and how excited he was for Halloween to arrive so he could go trick-or-treating on his cart around the hospital. Then, with his neck craned to one side and with a big grin, he cheerfully directed me as I drew two personalized license plates to tape to the front and back of his cart. tph1166014_03-web-mss_519847-revision-11


During a different session I was sitting at a kindergarten-sized table in the playroom on Francis 3 drawing a picture for a nine-year-old cancer patient. I was putting the finishing touches on a drawing of a princess in a ball-gown when her mother swept in, leaned over the table and breathlessly declared, “Honey, the doctor said your tumor is shrinking. Let’s go call Grandma right now and tell her!” I stopped what I was doing, arrested mid-stroke. There are moments where by some design of life we feel completely irrelevant. This was one of them. I had just been witness to a drive-by miracle and in the process had become wonderfully and completely irrelevant. I finished drawing a princess for her.


As time went by I began to realize what was happening on these visits. I was learning perspective. With each session, hospital rooms magically turned into classrooms and ICU beds became lecterns where ten-year-old professors lay imparting wisdom in perspective. For my part, I was a student disguised as a Mayo employee who drew pictures of kittens, racecars, superheros, or whatever grasped their imagination at the moment. Every time I put marker to paper for another young patient I couldn’t help feeling that I came out of the exchange richer than when I had begun.


Still on another visit, I was ushered into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where a baby girl lay dying of hydrocephalus. She certainly didn’t need anything that I had to offer. Acutely aware of my smallness, I quietly drew her name in playful letters surrounded by flowers and butterflies and gave it to her parents. Their graciousness and gratitude were humbling and I was out of my league in my ability to respond. I wanted “perspective class” to get out early that day.


Not very long ago a little girl came up to me as I finished drawing for another patient in the Child Life Activity Room. She politely asked me to draw a picture of “a dog with a daddy.” She didn’t appear to be a patient but I said “Sure, what kind of dog would you like?” “A golden retriever” she replied. I did a pretty good job drawing the dog she had asked for sitting contentedly with a ball at its feet. Then I remembered, “I need to add a daddy.” It turns out I was so focused on the dog that I hadn’t left much room for him. “That’s ok” I thought, I’ll draw him half out of the picture with his hand reaching down from the top of the page just touching the top of the dog’s head. Perfect.


A half hour later, I was in the hallway on my way to another patient’s room when I saw a man who looked to be in his 60’s walking straight towards me. As he got closer I could see he was crying. I stopped in the hall and faced him. Without introducing himself he started talking. In a shaky voice he said, “I just have to thank you for the drawing you did for my granddaughter.” Then he added, “That was my son. That was my son in the picture. That was my son.” He thanked me some more and turned and left.


Later on I learned that this man’s son had just been killed in a tragic car accident with one daughter still in the ICU as a result. The girl who asked for the picture of the “dog with a daddy” was the son’s other daughter. To him, the hand that reached down into the picture gently touching the golden retriever symbolized the loving presence of his son.


And so it goes with this new education of mine. It’s never the same. Sometimes when I go to draw, I feel awkward and not sure what I will say or how it will all turn out.  Sometimes a six-year-old art critic announces that the deer I just drew looks more like a cow. Other times a small miracle happens. But always, I learn perspective.

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17 Responses to “Learning Perspective”

  1. A touching story « Eat, Read, Shoot & Live Says:

    […] recently read this blog post, Learning Perspective, on the new Sharing Mayo Clinic Blog — A blog with stories from patients, families, friends […]

  2. Sheila Says:

    What a blessing you are to the children and now to us- the ones priviledged enough to read your story. Thank you!

  3. Ron Crabb Says:

    Hi Jeff,

    You’ve really found a great thing to do with your talent and as you know, I know how much talent you really have! But this art must be the best art you’ve ever done just for the joy it brings to those kids. Nice work my friend.


  4. dsl02 Says:

    As I read your story, Jeff, I realized I had tears running down my face. I can imagine how fulfilling being able to make a difference in a sick child or his/her parent must be, even just a smile – but I can guarantee your pictures are hanging on refrigerators and children’s bedrooms around the world. I am an employee and not in direct patient care so do appreciate those opportunities to direct a lost patient, give a smile, or even sit with someone who looks bewildered or sad and listen. Thanks for sharing your story, Jeff. It will make me think about what else I can do to try making a difference.

  5. Touching Kids’ Hearts | Boerger Times Says:

    […] Bell has become a good friend of mine and this is a fantastic piece that he wrote on a Mayo Clinic blog. Please take a minute to read […]

  6. A touching story « Christa Butler Photography - Rochester MN. Size Does Not Matter. It is how you use it. (The camera, that is.) Says:

    […] recently read this blog post, Learning Perspective, on the new Sharing Mayo Clinic Blog — A blog with stories from patients, families, friends […]

  7. Playing Now: Tetrishead by Zoe Keating « Says:

    […] read the full article click here Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Visual Thinking : a conference with Dan […]

  8. Kathryn Bouman Says:

    My 2 year old daughter, Klara, is a patient at Mayo and has spent time at Saint Mary’s. I cannot speak highly enough about the care my daughter has recieved and the loving and caring staff. Thank you so much for making a difference in childrens lives. Maybe we will run into you on one of our trips.

  9. Alice Wied Says:

    I have a new outlook on life after reading this. The people who are employed by the Mayo are ordinary people doing amazing jobs. I am sure there are some that are not as perfect as others as in all jobs. But as a whole the people at the Mayo are incredible and they touch our lives as patients in ways no other medical facility does.

  10. Michelle Felten Says:

    Jeff: You have moved me with this story and with your selfless acts of love and compassion on behalf of Mayo Clinic. How wonderful for you to share your God-given talent to bring hope and inspiration to those most in need…our patients, their families AND our employees.

    Michelle Felten

  11. jpaulbell Says:

    It is probably unnecessary to respond to the kind comments, but for those like myself who do not see patients as a part of our daily jobs; it is rewarding to find a way to connect to what Mayo is all about. Everyone has something to give even if we don’t touch a patient. I have seen people simply pick up a piece of trash on Annenberg Plaza or hold an elevator door open a little longer for a patient in the Mayo Building or give directions to a lost visitor. It all makes a big difference. There must be a million great stories from caregivers and people like me of the small kindnesses that we all see around us each day. Please tell some of them.

  12. Joan Huhn Says:

    It seems so non-medical and yet…

  13. Beth Herman Says:

    What a beautiful reminder that we as employees touch people’s lives everyday in may ways. You put the love into TLC and touch our smallest patients using your talents. Thank you!

  14. Randy McKeeman Says:

    Jeff, I appreciate your contributions to our work in the children’s hospital and I know you will continue to perfect your deer and cows. Thanks for sharing your story!

  15. ECA Says:

    Jeff, what an incredible act of kindness for the children. It just goes to show the little things can mean the most. Those children are blessed by your talent and gift. God Bless.

  16. Nicole Bennett Engler Says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Jeff. It is easy to assume that as Illustration and Design’s section head you wouldn’t have time to “stop to smell the roses.” It is very inspiring to learn how you have touched the lives of so many patients — particularly kids — in such a meaningful way.

  17. Janet Yontz Says:

    What a wonderful story—–after over 40 years of being a Mayo patient I am delighted to share in the SHARING MAYO CLINIC . I will be sending these inspiring stories off around the world . God Bless Mayo Clinic

    Janet Yontz

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