By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Florence Hawkins-Criss

The proper name for those teardrop-shaped, adhesive bits of plastic that attach wires to your body for cardiac tests is “leads.” More casually, they’re called “stickies.”

Some people see them and think of mildly uncomfortable procedures, anxiety about the results, or the slight sting when the technician rips them off.

Florence Hawkins-Criss saw them and thought about art.

For the 59-year-old Dallas woman, the stickies served as a bridge from heart patient to acclaimed artist, from a nervous woman seeing a cardiologist at Baylor Jack and Jane Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital to an inspired painter exhibiting her work in the building’s lobby.

“I’m still in shock that people are receiving it the way they are,” she said at a reception in her honor just before Valentine’s Day. “I just needed to do something for me, and thought, ‘OK, Florence, you’re an artist. Get this out the best way you can.’ “

The art took a long time to emerge. In a saga reminiscent of Mr. Holland’s Opus, the movie about a beloved music teacher who never finds the time to compose his own work, Hawkins-Criss was wrapped up in her students.

She went to college as an art major. “I was going to be a famous artist,” she said. “But my mother said you better not leave that school without a teacher certification. I was just going to teach long enough until my career took off, but I loved it.”

She loved it for 34 years, the first nine as a fourth-grade teacher and then as a specialist, steering middle schoolers into the world of art.

“They’re challenging, but they kept me on my toes,” she says. “People would ask me, ‘So what art are you producing?’ I’d say, ‘I’m producing young artists.’

“But I wasn’t realizing I was kind of stifling myself. I was getting my art fix in by working with the kids.”

Then, about four years ago, she got sick. Chest pains, numbness, disorientation and brief blackouts brought her to a neurologist, then to Dr. Melissa Carry, a Dallas cardiologist.

“She was having little TIAs,” Dr. Carry said, referring to a transient ischemic attack, commonly known as a mini-stroke. “Ninety-nine percent of the time they’re caused by a heart issue, not a neurological issue, so we had to figure out why.”

Hawkins-Criss quit working full time and went to “every kind of ‘ologist’ there is.” But she also admits she wasn’t a very good patient, returning to work without telling her doctors, sometimes ignoring advice not to drive and spending too much time in bed feeling sorry for herself.

“I have patients like this who don’t ever want to think anything is wrong with them,” Dr. Carry said, “They want to ignore any abnormality and just want it to go away.”

Finally, last summer Dr. Carry sent Hawkins-Criss home wearing a heart monitor with leads and wires stuck to her chest and a device strapped to her waist.

“She had to see when I was having these episodes,” she said. “That monitor just took me over the edge. Everything until then was private. I didn’t have to share it with anyone unless I wanted to, but if you have something attached to you physically you can’t explain that away. So I thought, now what do I do?”

The answer had always been there: art. Struck by the shape of the stickies and the monitor’s readouts showing her heart rhythms, “I started putting myself on the canvas and started feeling a little better about it each time. I was so excited that many days I’d find myself still painting when the sun was coming up.”

Soon she had produced a series of paintings called “Listen to Your Heart,” with those two themes, along with some of the actual stickies she wore during her three weeks on the monitor.

“The next time I saw her I said, ‘How’s your art? Can I see some?’ “ Dr. Carry said. “At first she didn’t want to show me. Then she brought some up on her cell phone.

  • Listen To Your Heart By Florence Hawkins-Criss

“I’m like, ‘Omigosh, these are incredible.’ She took something that was frightening and difficult for her to deal with and turned in into this whimsical, fun, interesting artwork. I said ‘You should let people see this. It could really help other people.’ “

With the encouragement of her friends and former students, Hawkins-Criss exhibited her work at a Dallas gallery in November before the Baylor heart hospital invited her back for a reception.

“Some of the technicians who took care of me were down here looking at my art,” she says. “How about that?”

Dr. Carry enjoyed the whimsy, but also took away a more serious lesson.

“Lots of people have to wear monitors and it is kind of scary,” she said. “As doctors sometimes you forget the things we ask people to do can really affect them. We need to be sensitive to that.”

As for her patient, the diagnosis is atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm. The mini-strokes were the result of small blood clots that reached her brain, but dissolved without causing any apparent damage. The current treatment is anti-coagulant medication, and Hawkins-Criss is feeling fine.

Any signs of her tough times are hard to spot. Chatty and effervescent, she’s marveling at the fact that people want to buy her paintings – “I’m a working artist!” – and excited to see what happens next.

But she’s still on a budget.

Some of her paintings are on big plastic sheets cut from window shades that her old school was throwing out. Others started their journey to her studio at the thrift store.

“Canvases are expensive,” she explained. “I go to the thrift store and if I see a large canvas I buy it and take it home. Then I say a little prayer to the artist and ask for forgiveness for painting over their artwork.”