By Mike LaBella
---- — Thomas Schena barely survived a horrific car crash that claimed the life of his brother and his brother’s girlfriend.
Schena suffered two broken legs and other serious injuries, and was in a Boston hospital for more than a month. During his stay, he drew caricatures of other patients, nurses, doctors and just about anyone he met. He did the same thing during a subsequent stay at a rehabilitation center.
Schena, 33, later had another opportunity to draw images of hospital employees and patients at Merrimack Valley Hospital. He spent several weeks there recently being treated for a medical condition. During his stay, Schena filled the halls outside his room with images he drew of everyone he saw and met. Most of the time he only needed one look at a person’s face to capture their likeness on paper. From nurses holding stethoscopes to doctors carrying patients’ charts to janitors holding brooms or mops, Schena drew impressions of everyone he saw.
His eye-catching drawings brought a welcome distraction to workers and patients in the sometimes-tense setting where people deal with serious medical issues. He developed a cult-like following among those he drew.
It started in the hospital’s emergency room, where Schena was taken after passing out at his home from low blood sugar related to diabetes.
”As soon as I woke up, I asked for a pen and paper and I started drawing one of the nurses,” Schena said. “It started with one nurse and, by the time I’d left the hospital, I’d drawn almost everyone in the hospital.”
Every time he drew a person’s likeness, he taped it to a hallway wall.
”I drew the nurses, the kitchen staff, the janitors, patients and others,” Schena said. “They called them caricatures, but I just call them scribbles.”
Schena, a Plaistow native now living in Haverhill, said his grandfather taught him to draw when he was a child and that he’s been drawing ever since. He finds it to be a way of making new friends.
”When I meet someone, I have an image in my head, like a photograph, and I just draw it,” he said. “Each drawing is as different as each person I draw. Every person has their own story.”
Schena completed most of his drawings at Merrimack Valley Hospital in a matter of minutes, while he spent more time on some of them, always making sure they were flattering images, and not comical or silly.
One of his nurses brought him a pack of colored markers and scrap pieces of used copy paper bound for the trash bin.
”I draw mostly with markers and pens as they are easy to obtain and don’t cost much,” Schena said. “One of the janitors brought me copy paper from his home. I like white paper, which is a clean slate I can draw on.”
Schena said some patients would drop by his room and ask if he would draw their picture.
”Some of them couldn’t get out of bed, so their nurses would come in and ask me to visit their room,” he said. “Anyone passing by I’d draw, even college students who came by to learn at the hospital.”
Hospital spokeswoman Jean MacDougall-Tattan said Schena drew pictures portraying the entire staff as happy and smiling.
”He enjoyed his stay and the staff enjoyed having him here,” she said.
Diane Lovallo, chief nursing officer for the hospital, said Schena worked quickly and skillfully in capturing images of staff and patients.
”His remarkable ability to see a person for a brief encounter and capture their likeness through his artistic talent is uncanny,” Lovallo said. “Tom may have been here to address his own health care needs, but in his own way he truly was a practitioner bringing a special joy to the staff.”
But as the days wore on and his drawings filled the hospital hallway walls, fire officials told Schena his display was becoming a fire hazard and asked him to take most of it down.
”The nurses brought their drawings home with them,” he said.
His last day at the hospital was bittersweet.
”I had to say goodbye to all the friends I’d made,” Schena said. “I felt like I was leaving my family.
”To this day, I still visit the hospital’s cafeteria to draw people I missed during my stay,” he said. “People love it. And the nurses tell me they miss me.”
In the accident that severely injured Schena, police said that on the morning of Dec. 16, 2011, a single-car crashed on Interstate 495 south in Merrimac, claiming the life of two people. George Schena, 27, of Plaistow, a front-seat passenger, died after becoming trapped in the Chrysler Sebring, which rolled over and hit a tree in the highway median near the Emery Street overpass. The driver of the car, Vanessa Knight, 27, of East Hampstead, died later at Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport.
Thomas Schena, George’s older brother, was in the back seat and was injured. He was taken by ambulance to Anna Jaques Hospital and later transferred to a Boston hospital.
”I was taken to Beth Israel Hospital with broken legs and was there for more than a month, learning to walk again,” Thomas Schena said. “While I was there, I drew pictures of the staff and patients. And I did the same thing when I was sent to Northeast Rehab in Salem (N.H.), where I drew the faces of staff, patients and other images.”