Though she’s not a doctor, Daphne Tully has been an important part of the healing process for patients at Sunnybrook for more than three decades.
Daphne, now 93, is a volunteer and watercolour artist whose artwork appears throughout the hospital, including on the ceiling tiles. These tiles are installed in patient care areas such as emergency, X-ray, chemotherapy and radiation rooms.
“They’re in every room possible,” says Daphne, who has painted about 30 tiles. She’s been around long enough to see in practice what science has now established − that there’s a connection between visual art and the brain’s ability to alleviate stress, anxiety and pain. Art provides a chance for patients to go to another place − a respite on the often long road to recovery following a life-changing event, such as a cancer diagnosis or a traumatic injury. And ceilings and bare hospital walls have proven to be prime real estate for helping improve the patient experience.
Daphne’s art doesn’t just make life brighter for patients, employees and visitors. It has also become an important part of the fundraising mix at Sunnybrook. She has been selling cards featuring her watercolours since 2008. Last year alone, Daphne sold about 200 packs. Over the years there have also been corporate requests for large purchases. One organization ordered 1,000 cards.
For Christmas, cards are printed from paintings by local artists entered in a competition every year organized by Daphne. These are sold in packets of 10 in the gift shop and around the hospital for the holidays. Daphne’s watercolours of Mclean House, Vaughan Estate, the historic Kilgour House, the hospital and the Odette Cancer Centre are sold in packets of 10 year round in the gift shop.
“It’s very gratifying when people buy the cards,” says Daphne. “I’m very pleased to help. It’s a constant thing; the hospital can use the cards for fundraising forever. It’s very, very special.”
Through the Sunnybrook Volunteer Association, ceiling tiles can be sponsored by donors and come with a plaque, complete with the artist’s name and information about the work. With a $125 donation, one of the four-feet-by-two-feet ceiling tiles can be customized and hung in the hospital.
Daphne hasn’t always been a painter, but after hearing a CBC radio interview with famed Hungarian-Canadian-American watercolourist Zoltan Szabo one day in the early 1970s, she resolved to pick up a brush and take a course. She says painting in oil or acrylic is fine, but watercolours present a unique challenge because they move. “Sometimes,” she says, “they go where you don’t want them to go.”
“A lot of people get discouraged if they don’t paint a masterpiece after the first class,” says Daphne, whose kitchen acts as her studio. “I’m a very determined person, and I was fortunate to take one or two workshops with Szabo. He said most people have it quite wrong when it comes to painting. He said anyone can do it. You just have to keep at it.”
Determination defines Daphne’s extraordinary volunteer journey at Sunnybrook. Her first role, long before the age of smartphones, tablets and on-demand video, was working on a pilot project to help patients access television service during their stay.
She remembers first being approached to volunteer at the hospital.
“A very good friend asked, ‘Can you start this afternoon?’ I said, ‘No, but I can come in tomorrow,’” she says. It’s been a great match ever since.
It was around that time that Daphne convinced her husband, Stan, to join her as a Sunnybrook volunteer. The two of them logged a remarkable 60-plus years of volunteer service, including 25 years together. Sadly, Stan passed away in February 2015. They had been married for 65 years.
“Daphne’s caring, creativity and commitment to Sunnybrook exemplify the true spirit of volunteerism,” says Katherine Alexopoulos, director of volunteer resources at Sunnybrook. “She and Stan initiated and led numerous projects that have had so many positive impacts at the hospital. If it’s about helping to improve the patient experience in some way, Daphne’s attitude has always been, ‘We can do this!’ She is well-loved, well-known and admired for her many contributions and accomplishments.”
A hospital can be a sterile and imposing place. The painted ceiling tiles offer warmth and colour, and there are now almost 600 of them to help Sunnybrook patients on the road to recovery.
One patient in particular had a lasting impression on Daphne. “She had been in a car accident and could not move,” recalls Daphne.
“She could only move her eyes. She said, ‘I really love dolphins.’ I had never drawn a dolphin in my life, but she was absolutely delighted with the ceiling tile. She took it with her when she left, and I will always have that connection with her.”
During the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003, there were extensive restrictions on family and friends visiting patients, and everyone was under stress.
“We were the only volunteers,” she says. “The nurses, staff and patients really appreciated looking at the art at that time.”
Whether it’s painting old stone houses or recreating van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Daphne says she loves to help bring colour into patients’ lives – and critical fundraising dollars to Sunnybrook.
“It’s such a worthwhile thing to do,” she says. “It has made such a difference in my life to have the chance to help the hospital and help the patients.”
Watch a video featuring Daphne and her artwork (filmed in 2011):
Photograph at top by Doug Nicholson