After doctors found a tumor and cyst in her brain, 13-year-old Emiliah Albanese discovered that channeling her love for drawing was a helpful way to relieve stress and express her feelings.
When she learned her younger cousin would need heart surgery, Emiliah put her artistic skills to work by creating a personalized heart drawing. On social media, her art quickly caught the attention of other families who had children with heart issues. She began receiving hundreds of requests to create personalized “heartwork.”
Emiliah’s striking watercolor-painted drawings often feature children and anatomically correct hearts with thoughtful, customized details. In one picture, a girl waters colorful flowers that blossom from a heart. In another, a boy pulls a wagon carrying a heart. Through her “heartwork,” Emiliah hopes to help brighten what can be a difficult time for children and their families.
“I feel really happy when I’m drawing for others, especially knowing that the drawings seem to bring joy to other kids and their families,” said Emiliah.
Drawing from her own experience
A year and a half ago, Emiliah began having headaches that left her unable to see out of her right eye and made her hands shake. One day, when playing the bass in orchestra class, she felt faint and needed to sit down. Emiliah’s mother, Rachel Albanese, took her to the emergency room at a nearby hospital. A CT scan revealed Emiliah had a benign tumor and cyst in the back of her brain.
“I was scared, confused and frustrated because I just wanted to know what was going on in my head,” said Emiliah. “I tried to mentally prepare for what might come next. Then I decided to take it all one day, doctor and scan at a time. I can’t control what life may throw at me, but I can control how I react to it.”
Seeking a pediatric specialist, Albanese asked for a referral to Seattle Children’s, where Emiliah is now seen by neurologist Dr. Catherine Otten and pediatric nurse practitioner Sarah Kiel. Since the benign tumor and cyst were not pressing on anything and the cyst did not need a shunt, her care team recommended that Emiliah’s tumor be monitored closely.
“I wanted her to be around people who are used to working with kids and can talk to her in a way that she understands, which is what we found at Seattle Children’s,” said Albanese.
One year later, the spot in Emiliah’s brain hasn’t grown or changed. The family remains hopeful as doctors continue to monitor Emiliah regularly. Emiliah takes medication for her headaches, which are now shorter and less frequent. Soon, Emiliah will have follow-up appointments at Seattle Children’s Olympia Clinic, which is closer to the family’s home.
Emiliah’s experience at Seattle Children’s has been “humbling,” said Albanese.
“She feels a renewed sense of gratitude for her life and health every time she steps foot inside the hospital,” said Albanese. “As a mom, it is powerful to witness your teenage daughter connect the dots on what is really important in life at such a young age.”
Painting from the heart
Emiliah has always loved to draw. Initially, she was primarily self-taught, but she enrolled in an art class to learning painting techniques after she began seeing doctors for her tumor and cyst.
“Drawing makes me happy because it’s peaceful, relaxing and stress-relieving,” said Emiliah. “I get a feeling of accomplishment when I complete a piece of artwork.”
Several months ago, Emiliah learned that her younger cousin Hazel would need a fourth heart surgery. Feeling inspired, Emiliah drew a symbolic picture of Hazel putting a bandage over her broken heart.
Little did she know, Emiliah was about to become renowned for her “heartwork.”
Albanese posted a photo of Emiliah’s drawing in a Facebook group for heart warriors. This resulted in more than 100 requests for Emiliah’s drawings from families in Canada, New Jersey, Iowa, Utah, Washington and more. Messages from parents described their child’s heart condition and expressed amazement over Emiliah’s drawings. One parent is even planning to get one of Emiliah’s heart drawings tattooed on his arm.
“Emiliah was stunned by the overwhelming response. She was just doing something kind for her cousin that she loves to do,” said Albanese. “She still looks so proud when someone asks for one of her drawings, when I read her a backstory behind one of the kids she is drawing or when someone tells her that they love her work.”
Emiliah’s favorite part of her work is personalizing drawings for kids, whether that’s by including the child in the drawing, or a meaningful quote provided by the parent.
“I hope kids will look at the drawing and see themselves in a positive way,” said Emiliah.
Finding a reason to smile
Emiliah is fascinated with the human heart and she said her dream is to be a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon. She hopes to work with kids because of her time at Seattle Children’s.
Emiliah’s message for other kids who might be facing medical challenges is to find a creative outlet and activities that bring joy to their lives. Not only did she start drawing more after she found out about her tumor, Emiliah also began doing more of the activities she loves, such as crocheting and playing music.
“I find it really cool how resilient these children facing medical challenges can be. Many of them are still smiling,” said Emiliah. “For a while, it was hard for me to smile through it. Then I started drawing more and playing the ukulele. It’s important to find something that’s a distraction that also makes you happy. For me, spreading joy through my art and learning about other people’s stories has helped me through a lot.”