Gil Rumsey laughed this week as he held one of three crazy pencil sketches in his hand, knowing that when he was on the edge of death, the ideas emerged from his own chaotic dreams.
One depicted intense, sleepless and strained eyeballs staring out at the viewer and floating in space. Another was of spiders. If only Rumsey could find them and eat their legs, he oddly dreamed and later drew, he could cure his syndrome.
“This one I call ‘Road to Recovery from Oblivion and Illness,’
” Rumsey said of a third.
In this drawing, the 67-year-old painter — who stood this week in his Lenexa basement/studio surrounded by hundreds of his bright and often serene landscapes and cityscapes — has sketched himself as an ill, half-naked cartoon escaping from beneath a web of lines to a place of happiness.
The good news, Rumsey reports, is that not only is he alive, but he is back in that place.
“His art sustained him,” said his wife, Linda Rumsey, 64.
TheDe Soto Arts Council
next weekend will present an exhibit of the kind of work for which Gil Rumsey has been known for 45 years. That much of the work is new, created in the last few months, supporters said, is as much a testament to his will and the power of one’s passion to heal as it is to the work itself.
“Art is very healing in a lot of ways,” said Rose Burgweger, a photographer who is president of the arts council. “In his case, it proved that. It helped him get through a hard time.”
It always has.
As a child in Topeka in the second grade, Rumsey discovered his talent for drawing when a fractured left leg left him bed-bound with a hip cast, paper and pencils. He copied from the encyclopedia.
In his 40s, art saw him through a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and later heart disease and multiple stents in coronary arteries.
In March 2006, when a fire swept through his gallery in downtown Overland Park, destroying an 11,000-square-foot space filled with antiques and five years’ worth of his canvases and livelihood, people wondered how he would move forward. Rather than wallow in self pity, he churned out canvases, painting late into the night for the next two weeks to be ready for a show.
“He just perseveres,” said Molly Nichols, 39, of Olathe and the older of Rumsey’s two daughters. “I remember when the fire happened, he said, ‘Well, I still have my hands. I can still paint.’
But last August, Rumsey was felled by a rare, painful and temporarily paralyzing illness called Guillain-Barré Syndrome that made his family wonder whether his perseverance would be enough. If the sudden illness didn’t kill him directly, they reasoned, the strain on his weakened heart would.
“I thought he was going to die,” Nichols said.
No one knows exactly what causes Guillain-Barré, a syndrome first described by the French physician Jean Landry in 1859. The syndrome takes its name from two other French physicians, George Guillain and Jean Alexandre Barré, who did more work in 1916 and described its symptoms in two soldiers during World War I.
Researchers do know that the illness is rare, affecting about 1 in 100,000 people of all ages, even newborns, although it mostly affects adults. They also know it is an autoimmune disease that arises most often after a respiratory, stomach or intestinal infection.
In Guillain-Barré, more commonly known as GBS, the antibodies from the body’s immune system that fight those infections turn on the body itself and attack the sheath that covers the body’s nerves.
In 95 percent of cases, the illness is not fatal. Among those who survive, 85 percent usually recover well within about six months, although they can be left with lingering muscle weakness and even some pain. Fifteen percent will have a poor recovery, remaining severely impaired and needing others to help care for them.
But in 5 percent of cases, GBS is fatal, generally when the illness assaults the nerves that control breathing before patients are sent to intensive care units and put on ventilators. In other instances, it can kill by suddenly causing an erratic heartbeat and making blood pressure spike or bottom out.
For the last two years, the University of Kansas Medical Center has been one of more than 100 research institutions taking part in aworldwide study
of GBS patients and their outcomes. At KU, neurologist Mazen Dimachkie said that for many patients the course of the illness not only is frightening, but also psychologically and physically “agonizing.”
“I can tell you my guess is that people would be terrified,” Dimachkie said, “terrified of the unknown: How hard will it be on me? Will it take me down to the point where something will have to breathe for me? It can be quite a lot for many people to handle. Chronic pain. Chronic weakness.”
Searing nerve pain in the limbs is common. At its speedy worst — often within two to four weeks of the first symptoms — some patients can become paralyzed up to their necks, unable to move or breathe on their own before treatment allows the paralysis to slowly subside.
For Rumsey, GBS started small, as it does for many. He had just delivered a load of his work to Pittsburg State University when, while driving, he felt tingling and numbness in his fingers and toes.
“Really, we didn’t have a clue at all,” Linda Rumsey said. Because of her husband’s previous heart problems, they went the next day to their internist, who suspected Rumsey had something unusual.
He called a neurologist.
“We’re blessed with who we think is the most fantastic physician in the world,” Linda Rumsey said.
The neurologist mentioned GBS. Off the phone, the internist turned to them. “‘You have to get to the emergency room immediately,’
” Linda Rumsey recalled him saying.
By the time they reached KU, Rumsey was already having problems swallowing. Soon he couldn’t feel his hands. The illness spread with devastating speed. Within twelve hours of being admitted to KU’s neurology unit, the artist was in the intensive care unit on a ventilator. Paralyzed from the neck down, he was given a tracheotomy and feeding tube.
“I was praying, believe me,” Linda Rumsey said. “I was praying and called in my girls and family and wonderful friends.”
“Have you ever seen a person with Guillian-Barré?” Nichols said. “They cannot communicate. They cannot move. He could blink his eyes, but he would get very, very frustrated. I don’t know that he was afraid, but he was miserable. I think he wanted to die.”
“It was overwhelming,” said daughter Jennifer Kindler, 35, of Gardner. “You’re in the middle of the storm, and you’re just not sure what the outcome will be.”
At first the family worried about life and death. Once doctors assured them Rumsey would survive, they turned to what inspired him.
“I think he would almost not be able to live without doing his art,” Nichols said.
Three weeks in KU’s ICU were followed by five more in Select Specialty Hospital in Kansas City, Kan., plus four more weeks of in-patient rehabilitation therapy at St. Luke’s South Hospital in Overland Park: three months in three hospitals.
Rumsey had to learn to swallow, to walk, to move his hands, to draw. His fingers slowly recovered.
“His mind, as well,” Linda Rumsey said. “He did more than 30 pictures.”
In his studio recently, chewing gum, he squeezed a mass of acrylic paint directly from a tube onto a small canvas for a new landscape. It’s a technique he’d begun playing with even before the illness.
His wife believes her husband is now creating art with greater vitality than in the past.
“I think he has more determination than ever to let people see what he could create,” she said.
Rumsey seemed to relate to his GBS and his recovery with the same kind of casual acceptance he displayed after that fire destroyed his work years ago.
“It’s about attitude as far as I’m concerned,” he said about getting back to work. “It’s about seeing the glass half full, or half empty.
“Right away, I wanted to have breakfast and get up there in the studio and do something. I knew I needed to paint, just as an outlet for me psychologically. That’s the way it’s been with me my whole life.”
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