Christina Frazier sewed a dozen roses on a dress, one for each day of her first stay in the hospital.
Nine roses were red. Three were black, symbolizing the days doctors and family thought she might not live to see morning.
"When you first learn you have a serious illness, it takes awhile to sink in," she said. "But I soon could see in everyone's faces how sick I was. I was actually in a pretty good mood at first, but I could see myself reflected through them and I saw how grave the situation was."
Frazier, 31, was diagnosed two years ago with a rare disease called mixed-case autoimmune hemolytic anemia. Her immune system mistakenly identified her red blood cells as invaders. It produced antibodies that attacked and destroyed her own red blood cells.
After stays in both Lawrence Memorial Hospital and Kansas University Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., including three weeks in intensive care, doctors diagnosed her with the disorder.
Chemotherapy seemed to help. Her spleen was removed, which led to a long-term remission. She has been healthy for about eight months.
"When you have a disease you can't see, it takes time to understand it," Frazier said. "The doctors are telling you what's wrong, but it's not like having a broken leg."
Energy to create
Despite the sickness ravaging her body, Frazier found energy to create. A KU student set to graduate in May with a bachelor's degree in art, she continued to sculpt and sew, producing new works that molded her illness into something she could see and touch.
"It was like I was trying to reclaim normalcy in my life," she said. "In art you're always trying to express yourself, and as I got sicker, my art changed specifically toward my illness."
One of her most significant works, finished in a KU Med Center hospital bed, was the rose-dotted dress, which drapes 9 feet from neck to hemline. The bottom is dyed red, and scarlet streamers flow from the front, symbolizing her own continual blood loss.
"It's kind of a map of my illness," Frazier said. "That's how art works you try to work through your feelings, and that's why it just got so big. The illness was so very overwhelming. I was at a happy time in my life before, and then I was hit with this. When I look back on it, this was me with no blood, but I'm really interested to find out what I can do with blood."
The underlying cause of Frazier's disease isn't understood, said Dr. Noel Rose, professor of pathology and immunology and director of the Autoimmune Disease Research Center at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Md.
"The short answer is, we don't know," said Rose, one of the leading autoimmune disorder researchers in the United States. "We're just beginning to understand the dimension of the problem."
Art about strength
Two possible reasons exist, however, for hemolytic anemia. The first, which Rose posited was more likely the cause of Frazier's illness, occurs when for unknown reasons red blood cells change slightly, causing an immune response. The second, and less understood, cause could lie in a change in the immune system itself, Rose said.
Frazier has won two Amsden awards, which recognize excellence in undergraduate art history classes. She also managed during her illness to compete last year and in 1999 in the Scholarship Show, a competition conducted by KU's School of Fine Arts. Frazier entered her 9-foot dress in the competition, but didn't win.
Faculty members nominate students for the show, which this year will run from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Maria Velasco, an assistant professor of art at KU and one of Frazier's mentors, nominated Frazier for the show last year and said she was impressed with her illness-driven artwork.
"It can be painful, but we sometimes have the opportunity to make something to help us understand who we are in the world," Velasco said. "Not everyone can do that. Her work I think showed her depression, but she was also trying to talk about strength."