Art of overcoming

Published 8:40 pm Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Art students at Demopolis High School received a special treat recently when they met Hooked on Art cofounder Becky Guinn, a retired Valley High art teacher who had her hands and feet amputated seven years ago.

A heart valve issue led to a heparin prescription which brought about a very rare condition for Guinn.

“The vascular surgeon told me it either takes your limbs or your life,” Guinn, who suffered from heparin induced thrombocytopenia, said. “He had seen six cases as bad as mine and five of those were dead.”

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The condition cuts off the circulation to an individuals hands and feet. Such was the case for Guinn, who lost the limbs at 54 years old. But her attitude at the time of the surgery and in the seven years since is what caused Demopolis High principal Leon Clark to invite Guinn and her Hooked on Art partner Becky Cairns to speak with students in the school’s art classes.

“Even though she is an artist, she has been able to take her experiences that she has had to go through and has been able to tell these kids that there is a bad side and a good side to things in life,” Clark said of Guinn, with whom he worked while serving as principal of Valley High.

Guinn’s positive outlook and general sense of humor was evident from the beginning as she moved her wheelchair away from a vacant seat to give a student a place to sit.

“I’ll let you have this seat, I have my own,” she joked. Many in the class chuckled at the remark before Guinn began telling her story.

With prosthetic hooks that open and close occupying the space where her hands once were, Guinn told of her ordeal.

“It was a pretty devastating thing,” she told students of the surgery. “I flatlined twice. They called my family in two or three times to say their goodbyes to me.”

But as Guinn emerged from the surgery, she made a decision. And it was that decision that proved the core of the lesson she attempted to relay at Demopolis High students last week.

“We decided we could get bitter or we could get better,” Guinn said of her family’s approach to her difficult circumstances. She told the story of a man who occupied the hospital room across from her. While fully functional physically, his mental capacity had been significantly reduced by drug abuse.

“I could still think and love and do,” she said, contrasting her situation with the stranger across the hall as she recovered. “We chose to focus on that.”

Her lesson furthered as she told students simply, “You choose your attitudes.” Guinn’s attitude allowed her to clamp a pencil to what remained of one of her arms and type the entirety of her 53-page master’s thesis one key at a time with the eraser. It even allowed her to continue teaching for five more years after her surgery. Upon retirement, she and former colleague Cairns formed the Hooked on Art program — play on words given both her affinity for art and her prosthetic instruments — an initiative that allows them to drive around Alabama and share her story and her artwork with students.

“They seem to be fascinated, very attentive,” Demopolis High art teacher Denise Meyer said. “It just fascinates me that she has continued and she went back to work after she had this done. She is very optimistic.”

Guinn, who did her first painting  less than six months after the operation, showed off her talents and techniques with the students that visited the DHS library.

“If it’s in you and you want to create or you want to do a certain thing, you’ll find a way,” she told the students as she pushed paint across a canvas.