9 months in the hospital awaiting transplants, a UCLA Health patient brightens her days - and an entire wing - with colorful paintings

Nurses staged an exhibition of Laura Topete’s vibrant images to spread joy and positivity.

No other room at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center looks like Laura Topete’s.

Bright, colorful paintings cover virtually every inch of available space — on the walls, the chairs, the baseboards. The canvases depict Disney characters — Lilo & Stitch, Moana and Maui, Mufasa and Scar from “The Lion King” — along with superheroes and famous animated families including the Jetsons, the Simpsons and the Flintstones.

Atop a table, a container corrals a collection of paintbrushes and a cup of water for rinsing them. Small, plastic cups hold her selection of colors for the day: red, fuchsia, aqua blue and emerald green.

During the nine months Topete has been a patient in the 7 North coronary care and cardiac observation unit awaiting heart and kidney transplants, she has been painting. And painting. And painting.

“I just paint for stress relief,” says the 37-year-old. “It’s been helping me a lot, just to get through day by day.”

Laura Topete has been a patient for nine months at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, as she awaits heart and kidney transplants. She spends much of her time creating paintings that decorate her hospital room. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Topete began painting as a child, emulating her artist dad. When she was first admitted to the hospital, she brought along a sketchbook and colored pencils. As time went on and her condition improved, her parents brought over canvases and a collection of acrylic paints. When her father comes to visit, the two paint together.

Drawn to the colorful and whimsical, Topete typically searches online for images that inspire, often finding herself connecting with Disney characters. She starts with a pencil sketch, then picks up the paintbrush. “I’ll paint for six or seven hours,” she says. “I can finish one in a day.”

An art exhibit in a hospital hallway

Still, she amassed more than 40 vibrant canvases in her room, prompting curious and delighted looks from workers, patients and visitors passing through the hall. That’s what inspired a nurse on the floor, Erika Oshiro, to suggest staging an exhibition.

Her painting time is abbreviated on days she has dialysis.

“We’ve never done something like this before,” says Gloria Junio, MSN, RN, director of the Coronary Care Unit and Cardiac Observation Unit. The nurses envisioned setting up the paintings along a long hallway on the seventh floor. Doing so, however, would require approval from the hospital’s safety supervisors.

Laura Topete visits with Cardiac Observation Unit nurses. Back row, left to right: Gloria Junio, Neha Singh and Jeeyeon Schmidt. Front row, left to right: Farnaz Zahiri and Ann Kim. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Junio made the case to the safety manager. “I told her, ‘This patient has been here for months waiting for heart and kidney transplant, and she’s really doing well. She has a positive outlook on life, but we just want to boost her spirits. She’s here nine months already, and she does all this artwork, and we just want to make her feel special.’”

The safety manager initially green-lit a 30-minute show. Junio pressed for 30 minutes a day for a week. The supervisor agreed.

Junio raced to the art-supply store to buy easels. She asked Oshiro to make a flier, then a poster, to advertise the exhibition. They alerted everyone on the floor, then all the nurses in the building. “I actually sent it out to all of nursing and everybody else,” Junio says. “So people from other units and other departments would come and check out this art as well.”

With the care and attention of experienced curators, Junio and her team arranged a selection of Topete’s paintings on easels that stretched down the hallway. Each day featured different works. The gallery even included a few of Topete’s father’s paintings of tranquil landscapes.

Seeing the works on easels rather than jumbled together in Topete’s room made them look even more exceptional, Junio says: “We just kept walking through the hallway, because they look amazing now that they’re all separated.”

The experience was a thrill for all involved.

How much for one of the paintings?

“She’s the first patient who is actually an artist and expresses herself like this,” Junio says of Topete. “All her doctors, she’s painted something for them and given it as a gift. I even have one in my office. And when we displayed it, people really loved her work. They asked her if she was selling it and if they could buy it.”

Topete couldn’t believe the response. She had never sold a painting — never intended to — and didn’t know what to charge.

Heart transplant pharmacist Ashley Fan watches as Laura Topete works on a canvas. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

“I don’t do this for sales,” she told her would-be patrons. “I love that you like it. I really appreciate that. And I know you’re going to appreciate it, too. So whatever you want to give me is fine.”

Junio says she hopes to do another exhibit of Topete’s work, as she continues to create new pieces almost daily. Beyond boosting the patient’s spirits, the pop-up gallery brings joy to everyone on the hospital floor, Junio says. People aren’t just inspired by Topete’s paintings, but by the attitude and energy behind them.

“It’s amazing to see,” Junio says. “Can you imagine staying in the hospital for nine months?”

Patients with such positive attitudes have better outcomes and quicker recovery times, Junio says. “People here really want her to stay positive, stay the course until she gets her transplants.”

For Topete, seeing her artwork so professionally displayed and so well received has been deeply gratifying.

“Because, I mean, I never thought I could have that,” she says. “It was really nice and it made me really happy. I just want to thank the whole floor for doing that for me.”