LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 18, 2022) – When you step off the elevator on the fourth floor of Kentucky Children’s Hospital (KCH), you’re greeted by a majestic unicorn, and enchanting vision of greens, blues and purples.
A unicorn composed entirely of plastic waste from the hospital.
Unity “MoonPie” McSparkles is a collaborative art piece, created by the staff of KCH, UK Arts in HealthCare and other members of the hospital community. This mosaic, roughly five feet tall and six feet wide, is made up of thousands of vial caps, oral syringe caps, clamps and tubes to create an image of a serene unicorn, silently greeting and comforting every patient, visitor and staff.
The idea for this mosaic was inspired by Tilda Shalof, a nurse in Canada who spent nearly 30 years collecting discarded medical plastic to create a colorful mosaic embedded in clear resin. KCH nurses approached the Child Life staff about creating something similar for their hospital. The staff agreed, and collection of plastic began.
Buckets were placed at nurse’s stations around KCH to collect the caps of medication vials. Staff from around the hospital enterprise including Markey Cancer Center and central pharmacy in Chandler saved their plastic waste as well. Soon the collection numbered in the thousands, but the question remained – what would this become?
After many meetings and discussions, KCH staff settled on the idea of a unicorn. After all, what is a better symbol of hope, healing and magic?
Lexington artist Christine Kuhn joined the team to provide guidance with the design and construction process, but the work was done entirely by KCH staff who volunteered their time.
”As the unicorn started to take shape, it became even more clear that many hands are present in health care and in the mural,” said Joey Burke, UK HealthCare’s first nurse ethicist. “A music therapist asked if they could add a guitar pick and a member of the maintenance crew added a wire nut. Each of these pieces of the story is nestled in with the medicine caps, the IV tubing, specimen tubes and a stethoscope diaphragm. Medical waste became whimsy and fantasy as the unicorn took shape.”
The pieces of plastic are inextricably tied to patient care. Staff know and recognize the lids and caps associated with a particular medication, vial or piece of equipment. Some things have changed since the collection process began due to new safety measures or design alterations. Yellow “alligator clamps” are no longer stocked but provide an “I remember when…” moment for older staff.
“It is a visual reminder that time moves forward,” said Erin McAnallen, expressive arts resource specialist for KCH Child Life. “It did cause a bit of humor and consternation when we tried to get more of the long green caps to represent vegetation in the mural and were told by pharmacy, ‘morphine doesn’t come like that anymore’.”
Work on the unicorn was well underway when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Only small groups could work on the project at any given time, masked and socially distanced.
“It changed the metaphor,” said Burke. “Instead of individual stories, the piece began to represent a sense that we were all in this together, stuck like glue, as one piece of a larger story that was jagged and fractured, and yet, together there was a larger role to play in getting through this.”
The unicorn was completed in 2021, save for one final and arguably the most important part. This majestic creature needed a name.
A contest was held among KCH staff and patients, but it was soon apparent that one name simply wouldn’t suffice for such a complex community artwork. The names with the most votes were combined, and the unicorn was christened Unity “MoonPie” McSparkles. The name reflects the whimsy staff were looking for and is a nod to the repeating stacked disks of plastic.
Since the unicorn shares its name with the MoonPie®, an iconic marshmallow snack cake, KCH staff reached out to the Chattanooga Bakery, Inc, to ask permission. The bakery owners were thrilled and flattered and heartily gave their blessing.
Art-making supplies were purchased through the generous support of the Simpson Family Pediatric Art in Healing Endowment Fund. This fund allows for the creation of individual kits of supplies that include a package of recycled medical plastic pieces so that patients and staff can create small, personalized works of art inspired by MoonPie.
“Sometimes magic and human connection occur in the unlikeliest of places,” said Jason Akhtarekhavari, manager of UKHC Arts in HealthCare, who worked in tandem with his staff members Sarah Timmons and Jim Shambhu. “It often occurs in the darkest of hours and in times of great sadness, struggle and pain. This unicorn touched many individual lives and provided the “magic” that was needed to those who participated in its creation. It built a meaningful web of human connection that will echo in time and be felt by many who see this creation in the months and years to come.”
The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers." We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.