Letting ill children float their worries away

Through art, patients gain control over stress

Joan Drescher (left) and Liz Ennis, founder and codirector of the Moon Balloon Project, work with children and caregivers to help deal with the stress of long-term illness. Joan Drescher (left) and Liz Ennis, founder and codirector of the Moon Balloon Project, work with children and caregivers to help deal with the stress of long-term illness. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Constance Lindner
Globe Correspondent / July 6, 2008

Gwen Lorimier, 6 years old and back at MassGeneral Hospital for Children for yet another stay, perks up when she hears a familiar jingling outside her door. It's the sound of Joan Drescher making her way down the halls with her "Imagination Kart," bells and colorful streamers attached to its sides.

Drescher, the hospital's artist in residence and creator of the Moon Balloon Project, asks Gwen if she would like to go on a journey and then begins to pull out sheets of poster-size paper. On each sheet she draws a hot air balloon representing a different emotion, running the gamut from love to anger to wishes.

Gwen talks about her feelings, decides which colors to use, how to decorate the balloons, and which people or pets should go into each basket. Then, she and Drescher "release" the emotions by setting the balloons into imaginary flight.

Gwen's mother, Kim Lorimier, appreciates the opportunity for her daughter to enjoy a creative respite during her hospitalization, the result of a congenital condition known as mitochondrial disease that robs the body of energy.

"It's exhausting for her," said Lorimier, of Needham. "Cat scans, MRIs, blood tests, some of which don't hurt at all but they're in her face, invasive, 'hurry up and wait.' You don't have a real normal sense of life when you're here."

But Drescher restores to each child she visits a measure of dignity and control over the creative process, the expression of their own concerns, even the luxury of saying "no" to the art supplies or conversation. At least as important is the opportunity for sick children to sort through their feelings. The Moon Balloon allows them to do that so successfully that is has been used in hospitals, hospices, and other caregiving settings across the United States and abroad.

Drescher, a Hingham resident, first envisioned the Moon Balloon in 1995. The illustrator and author of 25 children's books was at work on a panel of murals she had been commissioned to paint at Boston's Floating Hospital for Children and was struck by how little control the patients had over their environment. She could see that their siblings were stressed, too, with emotions that seesawed between jealousy over gifts and attention on one side and worries that their brother or sister might die.

She began sharing her art supplies, and the dialogues she had with some of the children grew into the Moon Balloon concept.

Her idea was published as a book by the Association for the Care of Children's Health in 1996, and it came out within days of the murder of 16 children and their teacher at an elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland. The association, now defunct, sent 725 books as a gesture of help, and Drescher was later invited to talk with social workers in Dunblane about her method. That began an odyssey that has taken the Moon Balloon, as well as its creator, around the world.

The concept has helped children in crisis in the United States and Canada, as well as the Philippines, Japan, and Italy. By using symbolism and color to facilitate safe self-expression, the Moon Balloon transcends barriers of age, culture, and language.

Judy Rollins, who teaches "Arts for Children in Hospitals" to medical students at Georgetown University, believes part of the ease with which children discuss complicated emotions through the Moon Balloon is its "campfire effect." The absorption in the colorful art, like absorption in a campfire, seems to draw a child out more effectively than a face-to-face conversation. Or, as MassGeneral Hospital for Children's pediatric clinical nurse specialist Mary Lou Kelleher put it, the Moon Balloon Project gives children a way to "talk about things that happen in life that are so hard to find words for."

Drescher says that she always starts with the "wish" balloon because all children have wishes, whether it's to fly or recall the sensation of their feet running on the sand. "I draw what they tell me," said Drescher. "It's amazing what comes up." She tells of a boy who could not sleep, and of her discovery that stress over his parents' divorce outweighed his stress about his brain tumor.

"Parents can learn a lot from their child," said Drescher, including that no matter how sick they are, they are still kids and that they "want to have fun and do those things that bring them joy."

The Moon Balloon Project Inc. became a nonprofit in 2005. Drescher teaches the methods to caretakers and codirector Liz Ennis of Norwell helps caregivers learn to care for themselves as well. She teaches them to use the arts - writing in journals, painting, movement, or any form of creative self-expression - to help manage the stress that accompanies caring for others in a long-term situation. "The expressive arts - all arts, like music or movement or poetry - can become a good coping mechanism and help you process and understand emotions," Ennis said.

Periodic visits to the hospital to treat her cystic fibrosis often brought 17-year-old Danielle Rivard of Upton in contact with Drescher, who helped her decorate her hospital room.

"When I woke in the morning and saw the mandalas and moons, I felt happy even though I was in the hospital," said Rivard, who still uses the concepts she learned through the Moon Balloon to handle whatever life throws at her.

"I've used the visualization techniques for myself and helped my friends with it," she said. "When I get stressed, I think to myself, wouldn't it be cool to fly away in a hot air balloon?"

For more information about the Moon Balloon Project, visit

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