Always Connecting… Celebrating Mary Anne Szkaradnik

Photograph by Jeffrey Lee, MD. (Jeff photographed Mary Anne when he was a 2nd-year medical student at Thomas Jefferson University, months after she was his mentor in the ARTZ @ Jefferson program).

I think it’s really good to come out of myself and to help some other people too.

—Mary Anne S.

Mary Anne and Mike Szkaradnik joined the ARTZ Philadelphia community when they became mentors in our ARTZ @ Jefferson program in Fall 2016. Mary Anne, a retired nurse, had been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. Finding words to communicate with others was not easy for her, but as Mike said in an interview about their first year with the program, they had been looking for ways to have fun together and also for a way to help other people. Mary Anne told us “I think it’s really good to come out of myself and to help some other people too.”

Photograph by ARTZ Philadelphia (Mary Anne and Jeff Lee talking at an ARTZ @ Jefferson session).

Mary Anne connected immediately and lastingly with her first student, and he with her. Jeff was a first-year medical student newly arrived in Philadelphia from the West Coast. He was missing his grandparents and his beloved piano teacher who had been diagnosed with dementia just before Jeff left for medical school. Despite her own difficulties, Mary Anne’s empathy for another person seeking comfort in connection drew her out of herself to share her warmth with him. She and Mike not only mentored Jeff about their lives, they invited him into their lives, introducing him to their family, taking him on golfing outings, helping him to adapt to his new life in Philadelphia.

Jeff was an avid photographer, and despite Mary Anne’s self-consciousness in front of the camera, Jeff and Mary Anne together produced a remarkable series of portrait photographs that became another expression of their mutual trust and understanding. When asked recently to describe his experience with Mary Anne, Jeff wrote that “despite her difficulties with communication that came with her diagnosis, we learned to communicate through mutual presence and warmth. I remember this led to one moment of shared silence and connection which felt infinitely more powerful than the words in a thousand speeches.”

Photograph by Raymond W. Holman Jr. Photography (ARTZ Philadelphia founder & executive director Susan Shifrin and Mary Anne dancing together during ARTZ @ Jefferson workshop).

As Mary Anne’s illness progressed, she relied more and more on communicating with her students through the visual art that surrounded us on the walls, the floors, and the ceilings at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, her favorite of all the museum venues at which we held ARTZ @ Jefferson. Like the ceramic tile with a butterfly on it that was one of her touchpoints at Magic Gardens, Mary Anne’s physical and emotional connections with the art around her winged its way into her students’ hearts and minds. More than any other mentor, Mary Anne taught the future healthcare providers who studied with us the power of touch and of shared looking to connect and communicate when words were not – could not be – enough.

Photograph by Peek-A-View Photography (Mary Anne placing her hands around sound sculpture by Harry Bertoia at Woodmere Art Museum).

Over the years, Mary Anne and Mike, their daughter Jennifer, and other family members also participated in ARTZ @ Jefferson and in other ARTZ Philadelphia programs. Mary Anne’s fun-loving, affectionate nature was almost always on display, though sometimes punctuated by the dark hallucinations that troubled her because of her dementia. She could almost always be brought back to herself with music that inspired her to dance – to connect – with those around her.

Mary Anne and Mike continued to take part in ARTZ @ Jefferson through the spring of 2020. From time to time after that, she and Mike would join part of an online program with us; her face would light up as she recognized the features of familiar friends on the screen or if a work of art visible to her on the computer was particularly colorful or filled with flowers. Gardening was almost as precious to Mary Anne as dancing.

Mary Anne passed away in the morning hours of June 17, 2024. Her daughter Jenn, sharing the news with our director, wrote “… she is now free from this disease and able to be her best self once more.” Mary Anne demonstrated to all of us in the ARTZ Philadelphia community that even as she and her family carried the burden of her illness, she was still able to gift versions of her best self to all of us. We celebrate her lasting impact in all our lives.

Learn more about Mary Anne and Mike’s experience as mentors in the ARTZ @ Jefferson program:

Photograph by ARTZ Philadelphia (Mary Anne and occupational therapy doctoral student Samantha B.  at an ARTZ @ Jefferson session at Philadelphia Magic Gardens.)