How to Help (when You Can't Change a Thing)





Introduction: How to Help (when You Can't Change a Thing)

About: I am a paper engineer, writer, maker and chemist wannabe. In addition to pop-up cards I design and build furniture, lights, costumes or whatever I happen to need at the time. Lipstick, a mixing studio, all-p...

We will all be there sooner or later: someone we love will become sick, their lives will be hanging, not by a thread, but by far too many tubes, monitors, catheters, whirring machines, monitors, and electrodes pasted all over their bodies. It might be a close family member, or it might be, as it was for me, an old friend who, though far from my daily life, remains close to my heart.

There are a few people like this: we live apart, in different states, in different countries, yet it doesn't matter if we can't see each other, a friend is a friend is a friend. Forever. Ken is a friend. One who never liked hugging or effusive behavior. Who would look at you quizzically, if you told him that you would miss him over Winter break and say: "Really?" forcing you to admit that yes, it was just a figure of speech. You were going home, your were rejoining your high school sweetheart, of course you weren't literally going to miss him. But the truth is, I do miss you Ken, really, I do. 

No one else could make me laugh with a story which should make anyone cry. When Ken got sick I needed to DO something, to MAKE something. This is what I did.

Step 1: The Idea

After hearing about how Ken's long brain surgery was followed, after a few hours of calm, by a stroke and a heart attack, I did what I often do to calm down: I walked my dog. Staring across the east river at the city lights I thought, not just of Ken, but of all his friends, all around the world, who were thinking of him, and hoping for him, and wishing they had a fraction of his talent for expressing their thoughts. Did I mention he's a brilliant writer? I'm not British, so when I say brilliant I actually mean brilliant, exceptional, amazing. I don't mean OK, pretty cool.

That's when my brilliant (yes, brilliant) idea struck me: forget words! I would take a picture, I would show Ken where I was when I was thinking of him. I would also ask all his friends, all over the world, to do the same. Then I would make a book with all our pictures to send to him. Then I would sell the book, and give the profits directly to him.

Though he had never said a word about it, I could figure out the math. Primary bread winner gets sick. Spouse must take care of two young children and husband, so can't work either. Income = minus, expenses = plus. This is a common math formula when illness strikes.

Step 2: Getting Pictures

Facebook's interface drives me crazy. What are you supposed to do when some terrible news is posted on the wall, click on "like," or try to say something meaningful (while impressing your friends by how clever you are) with 265 characters?  At the very least Facebook should have a "dislike" button.

That said, Facebook and other social networks are very useful tools for getting people together. I posted my request for photos on Ken's wall, and I was thrilled by the diverse response. Though I'd said the only necessary caption was the time and place of photograph taken while thinking of Ken, some pictures needed explanations, and some of those pictures with their explanations, were quite moving, others kind of silly and sweet, and all were interesting. Personalities shone through. More than twenty years later, many friends from our college freshman year dorm had a virtual reunion. The same cooky, wonderful people. I miss all of you.

When soliciting participation, be prepared to to a little nagging... even with the best intentions, life has a tendency to get in the way and some people who had promised to send me pictures needed gentle reminders. It doesn't mean they don't care, just that they're busy. Also sometimes, some people deal with unhappy events by putting them out of their minds. Oh, what's the point of hiding behind generalities? I do that. I bury myself in work rather than confront the ugly truth. Sometimes. Still, sooner or later, we all need to face reality.

Step 3: Laying Out the Book

Before you lay out the book you will need to choose your publisher. When I first started making photo books I used the iPhoto printing service. It is super convenient, the quality is great, but it's quite pricey, and for this purpose, it won't work. You can't share your books with others and let them buy it directly, you can only buy copies for yourself.

Other companies, such as Blurb or Lulu will let you print books for yourself (in many different formats), order as many (or few) copies you desire, and allow you to sell them to others with the markup you choose. I have used Lulu regularly because the prices are excellent, and the website is well designed. The one time I had a problem with the printing quality they were quick to replace the product at no cost... But I digress. You need to choose your printer before you do the layout because each company has different formats and specs you will need to follow.

Since I like to control my layouts precisely I used InDesign, but there are many other programs you can use. You can also skip these page layout programs altogether and use the online photo book templates your chosen publisher doubtless has on their website. Photo books tend to be slightly more expensive than a full color "regular" book (even though the printing quality is the same), which is another reason I do my own layouts.

Step 4: Publishing the Book

I can't go into details about the publishing process because it will vary depending on your chosen publisher, and also the companies generally do a good job explaining the steps. You will need to design a cover for the book, unless you want to use one of their (generally hideous) templates.

For mine I superimposed a scan of Ken's brain over our lonely little planet. To be honest I worry that it's a little creepy, but no one has said anything so far....

 You will also need to set a price. I chose to set mine so that for each copy purchased, a little over $5 will go straight into Ken's Paypal account. What I really wanted was for people to be able to choose their price so they could donate whatever they could, but that isn't an option yet on any website I've seen. 

You can check out my book here. Click on "preview" to see the interior. 

Step 5: Conclusion

This project was helpful on many levels.
  • For those of us who were too far to offer any practical help like childcare, raking leaves or lasagna baking, snapping photos provided a relief from feelings of helplessness. If you are on this site, chances are you will understand how satisfying and therapeutic making something can be.

  • It brought long lost friends, but also strangers together. Social and family capital have been proven to improve health. It's no joke. Marriage (including civil unions, I'm sure) prolongs life. There have been serious scientific studies on this issue, and if I weren't on a deadline to enter this health contest I would post the relevant links... 

  • Hopefully, this project will provide Ken and his family a little financial aid. As I mentioned in the last step all proceeds from the printed book (or downloads) will go to Ken, but also, if I win this contest (HINT, HINT) the prize will go to him too.
Even if you don't vote for this instructable or buy the book, I hope this will inspire you, when your friend faces such a difficult trial, to gather family, friends, acquaintances and strangers together in a project to show them your solidarity and love.

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    I hope, in my darkest of hours, that I'll have a friend as amazing as you are. I'm sending this link to every social networking and friend I can find, encouraging them to support you and your cause.

    2 replies

    I know you do, and that you most certainly have even better friends -- because, to be honest, there was quite a bit of selfishness involved in the creation of this book. Of course I did it for Ken, but most of all I did it for myself: it was my way of coping with my grief (which again was partly selfish too -- like Ken, I have two young boys so part of my anguish for him came from picturing my boys in his situation). This was also my way of coping with the fear that Ken's wonderful voice would disappear. Kind of like refusing to take an umbrella so that it won't rain -- I planned this book to give him as a welcome home gift back when we didn't know if he was going to make it. Superstition like this is of course absurd, but these little rituals do bring a sense of control -- imagined of course, but consoling nonetheless. And it worked! Ken is home now, slowly and painfully re-learning to do all the small things we take for granted.
    Thank you for forwarding this to your friends. The hardest thing when someone you love gets sick is the feeling of helplessness, and putting together a book like this really really helps. Not just the sick friend, but the whole community of people who care.

    sounds like doing a colloush of photos in memory of a loved one ust passed. Very healing

    It's written by Julie Cohen, my freshman year room-mate from Maine who ran off to England to become a romance novel writer. She also teaches seminars on how to write sex scenes....

    "There are a few people like this: we live apart, in different states, in different countries, yet it doesn't matter if we can't see each other, a friend is a friend is a friend"

    Oh but your wrong, I think theres many people who do the long distance friendship thing. I count myself among Those :).

    Arent They just Great :)? But it always worries me-what if *something* happens and Im not there? Im always a phone call away from most, but they seem to dislike the phone (except for emergencies :/ )

    I tend to think we are closer to long distance friends than physical ones. :)

    1 reply

    That's kind of what I meant: even though we live far away and almost never see each other we are still friends -- but you're absolutely right that in a way it is easier for friends to drift apart when they are geographically close. There's no excuse for the lack of contact. I'm not going to call my Upper East Side friends just because I happen to be in Manhattan, but I wouldn't think of traveling to a distant place without looking up old friends who live in that region... So as a result I have some dear friends just 30 minutes away whom I never see or talk to!

    You can set up a non-profit medical saving account for him or anyone else facing critical medical bills. Go to

    This non-profit will set up a tax deductible account were donors get tax deductions and the account holder gets tax free money.


    2 replies

    That's an excellent idea and something I hadn't heard of -- but the website you gave, for the National Theological Accrediting Foundation, seems, as far as I can tell, to deal solely with schools and education, not medical savings accounts. Maybe there's more to the organization which isn't on their website... I didn't contact them, I only checked out the link you gave.
    Thanks for the idea though, it's an excellent one, and if I find a link to the page which deals with medical savings accounts I'll update this instructable.

    OOPs. They changed their web address. it is
    It stands for National Transplant Assistance Fund but they do help people set up other medical accounts.

    Good luck!!

    This is a wonderful idea. I found it truly touching and I hope Ken's family did too.

    Wow! You and the other contributors really stepped up with the fine writing and lovely pictures, in this ible and the book itself. Ken must have inspired everyone to do their best; you were lucky to have such a friend, and he was lucky to have all of you in his life. Thank you for posting this.

    1 reply

    I agree -- it's the fact that everybody came together, each in their own way, which made this project successful.

    Nicely done sir. Thank you.

    I feel your feelings from my heart.
    But also your courage make me feel better.
    Thank you for being like this.
    Thank you to be there for your friend and his family.


    This really moved me. Its one of the best Instructables i´ve read. I even wept a bit on my keyboard. hope it survives. good job

    This is a beautiful idea and concept, I love it.

    When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends. - Japanese Proverb


    I am so moved by this. The whole human story and your idea to capture it is very creative and thoughtful. I do hope you make some money. If not, the book will be a beautiful and poingent keepsake, for the family, of your, and others kindness.

    1 reply

    Thanks -- I did hesitate quite a bit before posting this, but in the end I decided it might help Ken some more (especially if I win one of the prizes for him) and it could be useful for others in similar situations. It really was nice for old friends to come together like this on the pages of a book...