There’s not a dull moment with this patient

Her imagination is captivating and entertaining. Sandra Cook is an artist and a doll collector who finds peace through creativity as she undergoes cancer treatment.

By T.J. Banes, Senior Journalist, IU Health.
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Some feel they are in the presence of the finest southern hospitality. Others feel as though they are sipping tea with a British monarch. Danny Cook says it is his wife’s eyes that first caught his attention. But for many, it’s her voice.

Nearly 20 years ago, when her facial bones began disintegrating, Sandra Cook underwent reconstructive surgery. The complex procedure required her to basically relearn to talk. She’s been told she has a southern accent and she’s also been told she has a British dialect.

She takes it all in stride as she chats about her unique hobby – creating life-like scenes in miniature scale. Like portraits from her imagination she carefully arranges every detail inside the rooms of dollhouses. She has 32 dollhouses to be exact. The largest is seven feet long, and three feet wide.

The houses – some metal and some wooden – are all lined up around rooms inside her Kokomo home where she and Danny raised their six children. The couple met at a picnic. This month marks their 36th wedding anniversary. He’s the same man who once sang “It’s a Wonderful Life” to his bride while they were on a cruise.

As she talks about that life outside the hospital, her husband is right by her side. In February Sandra Cook was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“I’ve been as healthy as a rock. When I was a baby both my brothers got scarlet fever, mumps and measles and I never got any of it,” said Cook, who has five siblings.

In the care of IU Health oncologist Dr. Amikar Sehdev, Cook comes every two weeks for chemotherapy. To pass the time she draws portraits – also of people from her imagination. She shows a photograph of a curly headed dark-haired girl and talks about the beginnings of her interest in art.

“I’ve drawn since I was five. I always had a piece of paper and pencil in my hand,” said Cook. “I never had proper training but I always liked to draw. It’s a comfort to me. It’s peace and quiet. With so many brothers and sisters you had to find your quiet spot so you could have refuge.”

She never really has a sketch in mind when she starts drawing portraits – many of women – wearing hats, some with their hair in pigtails – and each one with a unique facial expression. “I never know what I’m going to draw. My hands just takes off – it’s like doing a scene for my dollhouse – it just happens.”

She got her first dollhouse at the age of nine and she remembers her dad assembling it at Christmas. “I think I really started loving dolls when my grandmother gave me a 19-inch Shirley Temple doll. I could only play with it on special occasions, “ said Cook.

Her dollhouse hobby took off when she and Danny got married. She spends hours arranging scenes – room by room. There’s the snapshot of four children standing on the couch looking out the window, the one of a chef arranging his food at the dining table, one of a child standing next to a snowman, a mother and father sitting on the front porch – their son wearing a fire hat and playing with a fire truck, their daughter playing with a baby doll. There are special occasions – a first date – and seasonal celebrations – a couple embracing on Valentine’s Day and a family opening Christmas gifts in front of a decorated tree. All of the dollhouses are lighted. She even decorates the dollhouses inside the dollhouses.

“I’d say with six kids, 11 grandkids and two great grandkids you see a lot of life. Some of my scenes are pulled from those experiences like a baby’s first bath or Mother’s Day where breakfast is served in bed,” said Cook. She estimates she has 300 miniature dolls; many are vintage Huckle dolls, made of rubber and created to be anatomically correct. They are completely poseable and look like real people from a distance, said Cook. She also has a little fun with some of the scenes. When her sister gave her a Hillary Clinton doll she designed a scene showing the former Presidential nominee campaigning in the living room of one of the dollhouses.

“It’s definitely a way to relax and forget about my cares,” said Cook. “When I see a dollhouse I see all the things in life that go through a home – not just the furniture and curtains – but the life that is lived.”