She’d rather draw than sleep: Mackenzie Collins, 12, shows some of her cartoon animals in her Arlington Heights bedroom. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
In a matter of seconds, Mackenzie Collins, 12, draws this cartoon cat wearing a hospital gown. The Arlington Heights girl created a series of cartoon animals inspired by images in the elevators at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
Inspired by animals used in the elevators to designate floors at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, Mackenzie Collins, 12, of Arlington Heights turns them into cartoon creatures she draws and names. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
During her medical appointments at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, Mackenzie Collins, 12, passes out hundreds of drawings she makes of cartoon creatures she calls her “Lurie Animals.” Making her fellow patients smile makes her happy. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
The white cat in this illustration helps patients and their parents remember what floor to go to at Lurie’s Childrens Hospital in Chicago. It also inspires Mackenzie Collins, 12, of Arlington Heights to create hundreds of drawings of “Lurie Animals,” the cartoon characters she draws and passes out to patients. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
Mackenzie Collins, 12, of Arlington Heights creates a cartoon character to match the animals designating every floor of Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. She passes out goody bags with her artwork to her fellow patients. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
Searching for a way to help her fellow patients feel more comfortable at Lurie Children’s Hospital, Mackenzie Collins made up a series of cartoon creatures she draws. Each animal correlates to a particular floor of the hospital. Courtesy of Mackenzie Collins
Awash in her artwork and stuffed animals, Mackenzie Collins, 12, draws cartoon animals by the hundreds. Diagnosed with autism and a host of other medical and psychological issues, the Arlington Heights girl gives her artwork to other patients at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
As a toddler, Mackenzie Collins not only devoured children’s books, but she loved to add a bit of herself to the stories with a crayon.
“A lot of parents are like, ‘No! Don’t scribble in your book,’ but I just let her do it,” remembers her mom, Mari Schmidt. “She taught herself to read when she was 4. She’s so creative.”
That creativity now fills 12-year-old Mackenzie’s bedroom with hundreds and hundreds of her drawings, stickers and stuffed animals. She lined the staircase in their Arlington Heights townhouse with colorful stickers and artwork depicting snowflakes and snowmen for winter, and recently redid the walls with signs of Easter.
At least once a month, Mackenzie, who has autism and a host of painful medical and psychological issues, hands out her artwork to other children receiving treatment at Lurie’s Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
She was inspired by the animal images posted inside the hospital’s elevators to give visitors a way to remember their floor. Every floor features an animal and is sponsored by a Chicago institution. For example, a lion marks the third floor, which is sponsored by the Art Institute of Chicago, and a baby chick represents the 20th floor, which is sponsored by the Museum of Science and Industry.
The modern, high-rise hospital can be overwhelming, and the animals were seen as a funny and whimsical way to connect with the children and their families, says Lisa Mulvaney, coordinator of the Creative Arts Program at Lurie Children’s. Mackenzie “has taken this to the nth degree,” Mulvaney says.
Sitting cross-legged on her bed with a notepad and markers, Mackenzie turns a photo of a white cat on the 18th floor into a bigheaded cartoon cat she named Kansa Chi because children with cancer are treated on that floor, sponsored by the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Mackenzie named her adorable yellow chick Akyuto Chi, because that animal signals the Acute Care floor. Inkuso Chi is a brown bear cub, the mascot for the 16th floor sponsored by the Chicago History Museum.
More vocal and social than many people on the autism spectrum, Mackenzie gently approaches a boy with his mother and offers him a bag with several of her characters. Some are fully colored and meant to be cut out. Others just have drawings of characters, inviting kids to color them as they see fit.
“You actually drew the whole entire thing?” asks Phin Ellegood, a 10-year-old patient from Chicago who also likes to draw. “That’s pretty cool.”
Mackenzie coaxes a shy Ben Lekkas, 4, from behind the legs of his parents, Cary and Steve Lekkas of DeKalb, so she can give him his packet of artwork. When Ben’s still shy, Mackenzie offers him a stuffed animal.
After dozens and dozens of visits with a variety of doctors during the nine years she has been a patient at Lurie Children’s, Mackenzie’s calm spreads to the children she meets. “I’m not nervous at all,” she says, pausing before adding, “At least not anymore.”
Living in subsidized housing and getting by on Mackenzie’s disability payments, Schmidt is the full-time caregiver for the girl, who attends public school for an hour a day. Last May, the single mom closed her Arlington Heights gift shop, named Macku 60 in honor of her daughter’s nickname. Some of the stuffed animals Mackenzie gives away are leftover inventory from the closed store.
As part of the family’s continuing medical tests, Schmidt says she recently was diagnosed with a rare, degenerative, genetic neuropathy, which Mackenzie also has, that causes symptoms similar to those associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Art gives Mackenzie joy. A television report a couple of years ago done at Lurie Children’s gave her the idea that others also could get pleasure from her drawings.
“It was Christmas Day and they shared a report on the news,” Mackenzie says, recalling interviews with child patients who would be in the hospital for the holiday. “They looked so miserable. I thought maybe I could do something to cheer them up, and it expanded from there.”
Most of her cartoon animals wear the Lurie hospital gown so they look the same as the patients. “Sometimes I’ll draw them in another outfit, like a British outfit or holding a British flag,” Mackenzie says. Her fascination with everything British started with a Lexus commercial featuring a voice-over with a British accent. She can draw a complete hospital scene with a couple of her characters and medical equipment in a matter of minutes.
“I just come up with an idea in my head and draw it,” Mackenzie says. Sometimes, she draws one eye winking, or both open wide to give the character a new look.
“As soon as we get home from an appointment, she goes back to drawing for the next visit. She prepares all month for it,” her mom says. “Every time she passes them out, she feels so good about herself. She has such a great time cheering them up.”
Under the watch of their mom, Becca Caputo of Aurora, siblings Andrew, 5, and Madison, 2, offer smiles and a hug to Mackenzie, who bounces up and down at the thrill of spreading happiness through her art.
“If they stay in the hospital, this can cheer them up and help with their recovery,” Mackenzie says. “That’s exactly what I try to do.”
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