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Helping patients heal with a dose of creative medicine

Helping patients heal with a dose of creative medicine

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Art plays a lot of different roles for a lot of different people. Art is entertainment, expression, status, spectacle, devotion, documentation and countless other meaningful, powerful positions.

Art can also be healing.

This notion, backed by a growing body of research, is at the heart of a handful of programs inside Western New York hospitals that help people feel a little bit better by seeing or making art.

Many walls at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and Oishei Children’s Hospital have been transformed into art galleries full of photography, paintings, drawings and installations by local artists. In these images, patients, visitors and staff can find a little silliness in a serious environment, a topic to talk about that isn’t treatment-related or a momentary escape from a hard day at the hospital.

At Children’s Hospital, each of its 13 floors features a juried collection of work curated into a different exhibition theme, including animals, sports, water, light, parks and gardens, and seasons. Scott Propeack, volunteer curator for the hospital and chief curator at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, explains that art within those themes is selected and hung for very specific reasons. Large swaths of red, which can easily be associated with blood in a hospital, are avoided. Paintings are positioned a little lower on the wall so kids can see them better. The audience and the needs of the hospital come first.

“The hospital understood that the patients come from a variety of backgrounds, so themes needed to convey symbols instead of words and reflect the region we’re in,” says Propeack. “For newborn floors, the art is really for staff and parents. Where the kids are older, we looked for a middle ground for all audiences, like sports. We check with the staff who work in that area to see if they’ll appreciate the pieces where they’re placed; they understand the services and people better than we ever will. Specific locations will change based on the needs of the hospital—that’s its primary job as a space.”

In the two years since the hospital opened, pediatric patients and their families have found welcome distraction wandering the halls and taking in the images.

“A couple months ago I spoke with a father holding a small child in front of a photograph by Jean Knox,” says Propeack. “His wife was upstairs with their other child in surgery. He said the photo reminded him of the Finger Lakes where his family lived. It was a great way for him to stop and not be anxious about the surgery he couldn’t control, and the waiting that is the hardest part.”

Art isn’t only seen at Children’s Hospital; it’s made, too. When kids have the opportunity to work with paint, paper and clay, they can get lost in their creation and become a regular child rather than a patient for just a little while. Their artwork is also an opportunity to express some of the thoughts or feelings they might be too young to articulate with words.

Caitlin Krumm, an artist whose work is also featured on the hospital walls, leads paint nights at the hospital, part of a series of art-making programs for young patients and their families. For Krumm, the experience of being at Children’s Hospital—and the feelings that come with it—are personal.

“When I was in middle school my older brother was hospitalized for quite some time; he was my hero,” Krumm says. “It was super scary, and there’s not much positive that I remember from that experience. I wanted to change that for kids there today.”

Instead of fear or boredom, kids can focus on colors and possibilities. Patients who are well enough to leave their rooms can come into the art room and work on a painting, which is then framed and hung in a special gallery section for a few months. The young artists, says Krumm, often bring their parents or their doctors down to proudly show off their masterpieces. Their siblings, who can feel a little left out when the family’s attention is on the sicker child, can come down and paint, too.

“It’s really big for siblings to be able to do something normal together,” says Krumm. “It’s hard for a big sister or big brother to not be able to do anything to make their little sibling feel better, and they themselves feel helpless and scared, too.”

Around the corner at Roswell Park, healing arts are also helping kids receiving treatment for cancer.

Ginny O’Brien, the project coordinator for The Kathleen and Joseph Curatolo Pediatric Visual Arts Program in the new Katherine, Anne and Donna Gioia Pediatric Hematology Oncology Center, says the goal is to help enhance life for kids ages two to 22 who have to spend a lot of time in the hospital.

Given the range of participant’s ages, the program uses a variety of materials and project ideas that can be adapted for toddlers to 10th graders like clay, paint and collage work. For older patients who have a special interest in art, staff will bring in specific supplies to support them. All of it is designed to provide a healthy distraction for young patients during tough times.

“Our visual arts program gives them control over their lives while they’re receiving treatment,” says O’Brien. “Kids will come with IV poles, determined to come in and make art. You can see the changes in kids when they’re creating. We have one girl who is about 11, and she makes beautiful work. She’s become extremely comfortable in the clinic and helps other patients with their projects. Her anxiety level has gone down visibly, and her mother tells me how much this helps in the overwhelming treatment phases she has to go through.”

While there are plenty of adults on hand to help young artists, it’s the kids who are in charge of the making.

“I’m not their teacher, but I’ll guide them and give instruction if they want it,” says O’Brien. “The healing piece is that it’s not our job to cure. It may contribute, but what’s happening is in service of healing. We create a safe space.”

At Roswell Park, those safe spaces are also full of another art form—music.

Molly Gold is one of six artists-in-residence at Roswell Park, each of whom is a part-time staff member tasked with bringing art and music into the hallways, waiting areas and patient rooms with the utmost care and respect for how patients and their families are feeling on that particular day.

Gold has been a professional art therapist for more than 20 years, 10 of them spent at Roswell Park. Not only does she do simple art projects with patients, like handmaking cards they can send to loved ones or watercolored tissue paper circles that turn otherwise drab hospital windows into stained glass, but she also uses the healing power of sound to put patients at ease. She gets referrals from nurses, occupational therapists and physical therapists who have identified that someone needs a little help before a procedure or after some devastating news.

“Most of my time is spent on sound vibrational healing using a drum from Russia,” she explains. “It’s profound. If patients are afraid, we can get rid of some of that stress, which makes things easier for the medical staff, too. One patient told me that while I played the drum for 20 minutes, in his mind he was camping and fishing with his son. It’s letting go and relaxing.”

Gold explains that when the body releases serotonin and endorphins, healing happens. Because most patients can’t go to the gym to get their endorphins flowing, the artists-in-residence at Roswell Park focus on getting people smiling and making serotonin.

“Healing takes place in the mind, body and spirit,” says Gold. “Patients are not just bodies lying on the bed. We take care of people’s state of mind and attitude toward being ill; we help people not give up. We don’t preach, we don’t tell people what to do, we are there to hold the environment for people so they can heal.”

At the Ambulatory Care Center at Kenmore Mercy Hospital, music made by harmonicas has become part of patient’s medical treatment. The Catholic Health offering is modeled after the COPD Foundation’s Harmonicas for Health program, which uses harmonicas as a tool to help people focus on their breathing.

Physical Therapist Jeremy Voorhees says the simple, hand-held instrument mimics a lot of the breathing techniques the therapists use to strengthen the muscles that move air in and out of the lungs and adds an element of fun to what can be laborious rehab for things like COPD, emphysema and lung transplants.

“Even for patients without a musical background, it’s a different and fun challenge, and they love it,” says Voorhees. “They take the harmonica home, they practice, they want to be better at it and we get better results than just assigning breathing exercises. They’re nervous at first, but then they realize that playing the harmonica is pretty easy. They’re playing a song by the end of the class, and never thought they’d be into ‘Happy Birthday’ after just 30 minutes.”

Voorhees says that many of his pulmonary patients are on oxygen and have a lot of difficulty breathing and can lose their breath just walking across a room or putting on socks. The harmonicas, he says, have added a bright spot to their treatment in more ways than one.

“It’s humbling to see the struggles they go through,” says Voorhees. “But it’s so great to see how they progress with this harmonica program, and its rewarding to see patients functioning at a much better level, being more comfortable and having fun with it.”


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