New York, United States
The names used within this article have been changed to ensure patient privacy.
The question is often asked of me, “What in the world do you do as an artist-in-residence in a hospital?” Over time, my answer has crystallized to: “I bring the creative process to sick kids.” Sometimes my response is met with a quizzical look, sometimes with a quiet smile and nod of approval, and sometimes a “how nice” ends the discussion. In reality, Arts in Healthcare is much more. Practitioners are primarily artists rather than therapists. Though therapeutic, the initiative is not a formal therapy, but focuses on actively engaging the patient, family, and medical staff in a creative process. It provides a platform for self-expression beyond and in spite of the physical, emotional, environmental and intellectual confines of illness. When patients actively create visual art, drama, music, or dance, they gain a sense of well-being, relaxation, and empowerment. They elevate to the flow state, as it has been come to be called. It is an extended moment of complete involvement of self in a creative process without distraction of thoughts or feelings beyond that moment—all positive results relative to healing that are lost when hospitalized.
I work primarily with young patients in a children’s hospital, engaging in drama, writing, and visual art. The stories here focus on patient experiences, exemplifying the power of Arts in Healthcare.
Becky is a quiet teenager. She misses school monthly to be tethered to an infusion line for up to six hours. She is held back from sports, and her continued pain keeps her home from school more often than not. Her austere expression on this gray Tuesday is typical. Upon my arrival in the infusion unit, a nurse suggested, “Just let her be. It is not a good day.” Apparently Becky had a difficult time with preliminary procedures. I smiled at the nurse and glanced at Becky, slumped in an oversized reclining chair in her partially curtained area. Though she barely acknowledged me, I felt an urge to engage.
Approaching her bed, my apron was the focus of a quizzical yet aloof stare. Once white, it had recently been tie-dyed multi-color, thanks to another patient who had announced, “That apron is too white! It needs color.” Upon her comment, I had immediately taken it off and spread it out in front of her with an array of colors. It has since become a visual magnet, offering a welcome relief from all the whiteness of medical staff attire. Becky’s reaction was no exception.
I placed a 36-inch round piece of tag board and a large tub of multi-colored tissue paper on a table in front of her. She sat up a bit and pealed her left arm from under a light blanket in which she had cocooned herself up to her chin. Without speaking, I showed her, on a different piece of paper, the ease of tissue paper collage. After a moment, she decided to pluck pieces close to her. Others cascaded out, inviting her involvement. After another moment, she began pawing through the bin, sorting out deep purples and blacks while other colors floated out with each one-armed tug. With the pile in front of her, she brought her other arm out from under her blanket and gently rested it on the table. As it was tethered to her infusion line, she treated it gingerly. Now adding the use of the fingers of her right hand, she sharply tore the tissue into tiny little pieces. Becky leaned forward over the expanding pile as she tore. Her lips pursed with each tear. The pile grew. From time to time, she deliberately glued a piece or two on a small portion of the circle in front of her, stamping each one down with her fist. We did not speak but I followed her lead, searching for bits of the colors she was seeking.
She began to tear slowly, and soon discarded the tiniest, darkest pieces for bigger ones that she could fashion into long strips. She progressed to dark blue. As she turned her circle, she glued brighter colors. Stamping with fists gave way to smoothing with fingers. She left white spaces and gave more thought to placement. Her shoulders lowered, her face softened, she was entering the flow state. It was rewarding to see her relax into the moment and her involvement in the creative process, letting all else fade from her consciousness. As she delicately put the last little pink piece right in the middle, she sat back, gazed at her completed mandala, sighed, smiled, and said, “Thank you. I feel better.”
This is magic
I met a 9-year-old girl who had suffered a stroke four months earlier. The nurses shared that she had lost the use of her right arm and leg. I introduced myself while she was being infused and offered to do something creative with her. She nodded. I pulled out some vividly colored acrylics and showed her my vast collection of brushes. When I produced a 20” x 30” board, her eyes grew huge! We began. She enjoyed swirling blues and pinks in large swaths.
When her mom excused herself, I chatted with the young girl, saying funny, goofy things as I would share with any normal nine-year-old. She did not speak, but began to laugh as she painted. After teaching her how to mix some colors, she grasped for some paint but could not reach. She folded her arms under the table and looked at me with puppy-dog eyes, seemingly to ask me to get them. I thought that she may be toying with me, so rather than give them to her, I asked what she wanted. She quietly said, “Paint?”
I coaxed, “What about the paint?” She looked at me as I smiled at her. She was silent. She looked pensive. We sat quietly. After a moment, she squeaked, “Blue paint!”
I answered, “Yup! That is blue paint.”
“Have . . .” she started, I smiled with encouragement but remained still and quiet. Her mother returned just as she asked, “May I have the blue paint?” She stood motionless at the door behind her daughter as we continued. Moments later, I retreated to the sink to clean the water for the brushes. While rinsing the container, I heard Mom’s soft voice saying, “She hasn’t spoken more than single monosyllabic words since the stroke. This is magic.”
As the nine-year-old got more and more involved painting, I showed her more techniques. She danced her paint brush around the canvas saying things like, “This is fun!” and “I think I need clean water.” When she finished, she flourished her brush in the air and announced, “Voila!” Her mother was ecstatic! I was thrilled to have found her a pathway back into the nine-year-old world she had lost.
Engaging sick children in the arts provides more than diversion. It helps to develop coping skills, self empowerment, pain management, and social interaction. Every visit reveals a unique glimpse of the healing power of creativity. Nursing staff has also come to rely on the Arts in Healthcare program to keep the patients, as well as their parents, calm and able to accept procedures more readily. They have also commented that patient involvement in the Arts in Healthcare program has eased their own stress too. One aide added, “And we just love to hear the laughter.”
MARGO DAVIS has been an actor/artist-in-residence at Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo for the past four years through the Arts in Healthcare Initiative of the Center for the Arts, State University of New York at Buffalo, through which she also teaches theatre and writing workshops. She is an instructor at State University College at Buffalo and serves on the New York State Department of Education Arts Curriculum, Assessment, and Teacher Certification committees. She is also a member of the Society for Arts in Healthcare and a professional voice actor. For more information, visit www.margodavis.com or www.ubcfa.org.