'Journey into Daylight' chronicles Westporter's fight for life

Life sometimes hands lemons to people, and the resourceful among them make lemonade.

Amy Oestreicher got bushels of the acidic fruit from which she has made enough lemonade to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. In the last six years, the 23-year-old Westport actress and artist has endured a life-threatening medical condition, lengthy hospitalizations, nearly two dozen surgeries, the inability to eat or drink for three years, and the frustration of deferred dreams.

Her promising life was put on hold when, at age 18, Oestreicher suffered severe abdominal pains that resulted from a blood clot, which burst while she was in an emergency room. She was in a coma for a couple of months and spent years in and out of hospitals in New York and Connecticut.

While friends went off to college she went into survival mode. While they studied subjects of their own choosing, her plans to study musical theater were supplanted with an unwanted curriculum of anatomy and physiology courses.

To this day, Oestreicher continues her battle for health and normalcy. Oestreicher will make a monumental stride toward reclaiming her life and returning to the path of possibilities on Sunday when she opens her one-day art show, fittingly titled "Journey into Daylight," from 2 to 5 p.m., at the Westport Women's Club.

"I was going to wait until all the medical stuff was done but I'm sick of waiting and I'm hoping this [show] will be a vehicle to get back in the world," said Oestreicher, who will have about 40 of her paintings, mixed media collages, pottery, altered books and other pieces in the exhibit.

The titles of Oestreicher's art work offer a hint of her struggles: "My World Has Split," "Vulnerable," "I Can Hold On," "Mommy Can't Fix This." They also offer insight into her indomitable spirit: "Singing Tree," "Home is Where the Heart Is," "The Best Day Ever."

Oestreicher said her subject matter varies but she often depicts nature themes. "Trees come up a lot, and birds in flight," she said, perhaps because she feels rooted in one place by her illness, yet hope keeps her reaching for the sky.

"It feels like an escape because it's all whimsical, fantasy-like," Oestreicher said.

"I watch her as she works and I can see the process. It's almost like a dance ... You can see her working through the trauma, everything that's happened to her, through her art," said Marilyn Oestreicher, Amy's mother.

"That's the importance of her work. It's about her struggle, her courage, her passion, her story," said Leona Frank, a family friend, professional artist and art teacher. Frank called Oestreicher's upcoming exhibit "a joyful expression of her creative spirit and her productivity. It's a way of sharing her story, but more than that, it's a celebration."

Frank said Amy Oestreicher is a prolific artist who possesses purpose, drive and speed.

"She works with a sense of commitment ... Amy's spirit and commitment to her work is an inspiration. She's a brave young woman," Frank said.

Oestreicher's bravery was apparent even in her hospital bed. Throughout her fight for life, Oestreicher found outlets for her creativity with the help of her supportive parents, who snuck art supplies and a glue gun into her hospital room.

"I always need to do something with my hands. It's a great way to express how I was feeling," Oestreicher said. "Art gives me something to do to bide the time. It's a good medium for expression. Producing something makes me feel like I'm making a mark," she said.

Art, and her many other interests and talents, helped to take her mind off food during the three years when she could only be nourished through a feeding tube. She was given the lead in a production of "Oliver," performed in "Cats," studied karate, wrote a one-woman play and wrote a book that she hopes will be published. During that time, the family did not use the kitchen because it was difficult for Amy to smell food.

Mark Oestreicher, Amy's father, said they had to get creative with their meals. "We had a microwave in the garage so if I wanted to eat (at home) I had to eat in the garage," he said.

Amy Oestreicher and her family have learned many lessons through her ordeal. She learned how passionate she is about life and about creating opportunities. Marilyn Oestreicher said she learned that "no matter how bad life gets, it's worth living because you can always find happiness in unhappiness."

"She is a miracle story ... She was too vital to die, and she has a very big story to tell," Marilyn Oestreicher said.

A sign in the Oestreichers' kitchen reads "Count your blessings."

"We do, every day," Mark Oestreicher said.

The public is invited to view Amy Oestreicher's art work and join her at a reception from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday in the Westport Women's Club, 44 Imperial Ave. Music will be provided by Matt Oestreicher & Friends. Matt is Amy's brother.