- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Zoë: “I wasn’t scared.”
Zoë: “Yes, the first time I went to the hospital, I was a little nervous. But after all the other times, it was: ‘OK, we’re doing this.’”
Sarah: “She’s a good soldier, a nurse’s favorite. And she’s funny.”
Zoë: “That’s what I’m known for.”
Seated in an airy room at the new Dell Medical School, slender, pert Zoë Morehead, 9, and her plainspoken mother, Sarah O’Brien, recount their many trips to Dell Children’s Medical Center, where Zoë was treated, most often for acute asthma.
Until the doctors found something alarming. More on that later.
It so happens that on this sunny day, Zoë is the poster child, literally, for the first portion of a three-building art installation at the medical school. During Zoë’s interview with this reporter, Ann Hamilton, a distinguished Ohio-based multimedia artist, was seated behind a long table downstairs, signing fat, free books that go with the art project — “Oneeveryone, 2017” — which presents cloudy images of scores of Austinites, Zoë among them.
A line of the large portraits on enamel looms beyond her in the lobby.
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Sarah: “Seeing Zoë’s photograph is bittersweet because I remember the stress and the worry and fear when she was in the hospital. But it turned into this beautiful thing.”
The daughter of Sarah O’Brien, a rigging and warehouse designer for the lighting company Ilios, and Dennis Morehead, Army retired, Zoë attends St. Francis Catholic School. Someday, she would like to join the FBI or maybe become an herbalist. She spends a lot of time fossil hunting and plant collecting.
In spring 2012, she suffered a major asthma attack and was rushed to Dell Children’s Medical Center.
Zoë: “I felt so yucky. I went to the hospital and threw up on Mom’s back at the front desk.”
Sarah: “I remember that.”
Zoë: “My stepdad brought me a bag of toys and blankets and all my things from home. At one point, blood was covering me.” (She giggles.)
Sarah: “We were no stranger to Dell Children’s. It has always been a point of gratitude that we live in Austin with such an incredible facility. She had been in and out of the hospital. So this wasn’t a complete shock. More like, ‘Oh man, we need to do this again?’ Life is upside down for the next few weeks. It’s so stressful even before you get to the ER.”
Luckily, the hospital, in the Mueller development, was designed to soften the stay for its youthful charges and their families.
Sarah: “Dell goes out of the way to make it not suck so bad. We would walk all over the hospital, or if she was not allowed, I’d pull her in a wagon. Around every corner, there’s something to look at or interact with.”
Zoë: “Oh, yeah, like that spinning ball thing.”
Sarah: “There’s a healing garden, also a playroom on every floor.”
Zoë: “On every floor?”
So it didn’t seem strange during a later visit for asthma and complications that an artist with a warm voice and bright eyes was photographing people through a thin membrane at the hospital.
“I remember she had this incredible composed presence,” artist Hamilton says about Zoë. “We were in the art room with families and kids. We didn’t know the details about their stays at the hospital. She was vulnerable but strong. There was something about the way she held herself. She looked out at us even though she couldn’t see through the membrane.”
Hamilton’s project, commissioned by the University of Texas’ Landmarks Public Art Program, compiled 21,000 portraits of more than 500 participants, including caregivers, faculty members, students, staff members, community partners, civic leaders and patients.
“Inspired by the elusive nature of touch inherent in caregiving, Hamilton positioned participants behind a curtain made from a semi-opaque membrane that allowed her to capture only points where the body touched the material,” reads the Landmarks website. “The resulting images are intimate and evocative of the sense of touch. Thirty images will be presented as full length enamel portraits in the public thresholds of the Dell Medical School, with a larger selection of smaller-scale portraits to be installed throughout the school.”
An exhibition of the smaller portraits and the story behind the artist’s process can be experienced now at UT’s Visual Arts Center at San Jacinto Street and Robert Dedman Drive. High-resolution images can be downloaded for free at landmarks.utexas.edu.
Back to the poster girl.
Sarah explains that Zoë had asthma for a long time.
Then in 2012 at Dell Children’s, she was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, meaning there was an extra electrical pathway between the upper and lower parts of the heart, which can cause a very elevated heart rate. Often it goes undetected in young people, but even athletes in top shape can suddenly collapse. Some do not survive.
So if Zoë had not gone to Dell Children’s with asthma, the Wolff-Parkinson-White might have been missed.
Zoë: “They saved me many times.”
Sarah: “They zapped that pathway. She’s 100 percent clear.”
Zoë: “No, 95 percent.”
Sarah: “No, 100 percent. You’ll never have to worry about the heart thing again.”
Zoë: “But not my asthma. I bet they are really tired of seeing me.”
Sarah: “Not true.”
During her last stay, the pulmonologist adjusted Zoë’s asthma medication and got it under control.
Sarah: “I promised that if she could stay out of the hospital for a year, we would stay at a fancy hotel and get room service. She loves room service. Just before Christmas 2016, a dear friend with hotel points rented us a corner room on the 33rd floor of the JW Marriott.”
Zoë: “We ordered eggs, bacon, hot cocoa and fancy hash browns.”
This day, however, Zoë is tickled by the posters that direct guests to the lobby of the medical school’s education and administration building at East 15th and Red River streets.
Zoë: “My picture followed me all the way here. The posters said: ‘This way, then this way, then this way.’ When I get them home, I’ll see if my 3-year-old sister will follow me.”