A Widow Paints A Mural To Protest Health Care As Congress debates health care overhaul, Regina Holliday is using her paintbrush to protest the current medical system. Her 50-foot-long mural depicts the problems her family encountered while her husband was fighting stage IV kidney cancer.
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A Widow Paints A Health Care Protest

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A Widow Paints A Health Care Protest

A Widow Paints A Health Care Protest

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For official Washington, a health care overhaul means legislative wrangling. In another part of the city, about 20 minutes from the Capitol, it means painting. An artist is illustrating the tale of her family's difficult journey through the health care system.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro has her story.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: On a humid day this summer in a parking lot at the long back wall of a gas station, Regina Holliday stood on a scaffold with her palette of red, black and blue and started painting a mural.

At the center of the mural, there's a dying man, limp in a hospital bed its Regina Holliday's husband, Fred.

Ms. REGINA HOLLIDAY: So here he is, his eyes closed, and he's got a paper in his hand, it says: Go After Them Regina, Love Fred, because that's what he told me to do.

SHAPIRO: Fred Holliday wanted Regina to tell the story. He died on June 17th. He was 39 years old, with his wife and two young sons.

Fred met Regina - she's small with red hair - in art class back in Oklahoma. They'd paint and argue about art, movies, politics and life. In Washington, Fred taught film classes at a university. Things changed quickly when Fred got sick. It started on Inauguration Day.

Ms. HOLLIDAY: So starting in January, like on Inauguration Day, Fred was already in pain. So we went to the doctor, we went to the E.R. because he had massive chest pain. And it turned out he had a broken rib. We don't know why he had a broken rib. Maybe just from coughing, everybody had a bad cough back in January. Okay, broken rib from coughing.

SHAPIRO: Only it wasn't just a broken rib. Fred had kidney cancer. And it had spread to the bones of his rib cage. Regina thinks if her husband had had better access to his medical records, he would have gotten better care.

The mural tells the story of a horrible day back in the spring. Fred was being transferred to a new hospital, and Regina needed records of Fred's many tests and treatments from the old hospital.

Ms. HOLLIDAY: So I had gone down to medical records, because thats what they said, well, you can go to medical records and request them. I went down there and they said, that'll be 73 cents a page and a 21-day wait.

I said my husband is upstairs with stage four kidney cancer in your hospital and you're telling me I have to wait 21 days? Everything's on the computer. All youve got to do is print it out and you're going to make me wait 21 days? They're like, yeah, that's just the way it is. I was floored.

SHAPIRO: Regina Holliday says when her husband was transferred to the new hospital, nurses there had to scramble to find someone at the old hospital who could provide the missing records. And as a result, Fred went several hours without treatment or his pain medications.

Ms. HOLLIDAY: He was just in so much pain. He was crying. He said his back hurt so bad. And they couldn't even feed him. I had to go down to the local pizzeria, and I had to get him pizza because without the correct transfer information they couldn't feed him.

SHAPIRO: Over the next two months, Regina would see her husband go in and out of hospitals. But there was nothing doctors could do to save his life. Six days after Fred died, Regina picked up her paintbrushes and started the mural.

The brick wall is tucked off of a busy avenue. Important players in the health care debate drive by every day.

Ms. HOLLIDAY: Well, I mean, of course, it's a wonderful therapy and release to get to paint. To get to do this has been a wonderful dialogue with the public. I mean, people often come over here. They look at the mural. They want to talk about it, and they often share their health stories.

SHAPIRO: She climbed down from her scaffold to hear other people speak with anger and sadness about their own run-ins with doctors, hospitals and insurance companies.

As summer turned to fall and the battle over health care heated up, Regina's mural got more political. She added details, like a doctor holding a sign that says: Health Reform Now.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: The other day with the last paint dry, there was a nighttime dedication of the mural. A few dozen friends and lots of kids gathered in the parking lot. They held flashlights to shine on the painting. People sang. And Regina answered questions about all the symbolism in her mural.

The clock with no hands: because normal time seems suspended in a health emergency. The nurse at a computer with the dark screen: because records aren't shared with patients. The doctor with her hands tied: because one part of the health care system doesn't communicate with others.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. HOLLIDAY: Okay, thats my question for all of you, is what do we do next? Thank you so much for coming tonight. Thank you so much for being part of Fred's life and my life, and spreading the word. And please, go out tonight and Facebook and blog, and post and tweet, and do not stop. Do not give up until we get change in this nation, until people get taken care of, and we all have the right to see our own information.

Thank you, guys.

(Soundbite of applause)

SHAPIRO: Regina Holliday is looking for new walls to paint, but not now. The cold makes the paint too brittle. In the springtime, she'll take out her colors again. Maybe by then, there'll be health care change signed into law. But there will still be stories to tell. This time, she will paint the stories of others, of the people who watched her work and told her about their own struggles as caregivers and patients.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

NORRIS: And at our Web site, you can explore Regina Hollidays mural in a video, thats at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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