The small blond boy looked at the wall and then up at his therapist.
“I like the crab,” he whispered.
Other children weren’t so quiet about it. Their voices rang through the concrete stairwell in the back of the hospital.
“I see a fish!”
“I see a turtle!”
The professional holding the boy’s hand saw the brightly colored wall with different eyes.
“This is a great tool for me,” said Julie Akin, a physical therapist at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.
The group was reacting to a just-finished mural in the hospital’s Children’s Center, where kids of all ages come for rehabilitation and development services. The painting — the second at the hospital by Vancouver artist Rebecca Anstine — is in a stairwell that’s rarely used to just move from floor to floor. But beautifying the concrete wall was nonetheless a top priority for the center staff.
Anstine painted a mural in January in the entrance area to the Salmon Creek hospital’s children’s emergency department, after her design was chosen among about 15 submitted by local artists. That painting is meant to put children at ease with soothing images during stressful emergency visits.
After Anstine finished the first mural, hospital officials offered her more work.
“I must have done OK, because they showed me 10 or more other places for potential murals (around the hospital),” Anstine said. “But we decided this would be the next one.”
The retired teacher is paid $500 per mural, and the Salmon Creek Business Group plans to collect another $1,000 for her in August at its annual golf tournament.
Anstine was given complete freedom to choose a motif, she said. She decided a marine theme would fit the necessary downward slope of this mural.
The stairwell now displaying her newest creation was a drab affair before. And it wasn’t just an emergency exit or a shortcut for staff.
The stairs are used by the rehab center’s therapists.
The center looks after children of all ages with a range of developmental problems, said Joanna Blanchard, an occupational therapist. Patients may show anything from mild speech problems to severely autistic symptoms, she said. Some have had brain injuries and need to learn to walk and talk again.
Walking through the rehab center’s rooms feels like being in an indoor playground — a very nice indoor playground.
There are swings of several shapes and sizes, sandboxes and mats to bounce around on. There’s a treadmill and monkey bars. And there are wooden steps with railings.
Those steps are very flat. They’re for taking the first steps in the initial phase of rehabilitation.
But the main point of the program is to prepare children for real-life situations, including navigating real-life stairs. That’s why the therapists have been taking their patients to the quiet back stairs for training.
And now, the formerly scary concrete well offers colorful motivation.
“I’ll tell them, ‘Go find the penguin,'” said Trina Volk, an occupational therapist who supervises the rehab center.
The penguin is at the bottom of the flight of stairs.
For some kids, just saying “penguin” is a tough exercise. Now they can roam up and down the stairs, exercising muscles, touching the textured wall and naming marine animals.
“This isn’t just sprucing up the area,” Volk said. “This is a model to parents on how to use pretty much any area for an activity.”
The rehab center staff disguises difficult exercises as play to make them enticing to kids. But most patients come in for only one hour per week. Therapists need to teach parents how to continue the work at home.
“We show them how to translate the skills we teach here to everyday life,” Volk said. “You can make your staircase fun.”