Arts + Healthcare: Helping Helen Visualize Recovery
In March, Helen Kunshek completed a four-week stay at the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, in which she received daily chemotherapy treatment to attack her leukemia. She was anxious to get home to her husband and three young children but couldn’t leave until her platelet count increased.
“I was depressed,” Helen says. “I felt helpless because I had no control over the process of increasing my platelet count.”
That’s when Sarah Colby, Barnes-Jewish Hospital Arts + Healthcare program coordinator, helped Helen develop an art project that would support her in coping and releasing anxiety.
“I made ‘platelet puppets’—decorating clay circles with paint, glitter and buttons,” Helen says. “This project allowed me to stay calm and visualize my body making the platelets it needed, while I ‘made platelets’ too! This project helped me to relax and enabled me to take a break and just have fun for a bit.”
Soon thereafter, Helen’s platelets did increase and she was able to go home. In the months since then, Helen has continued this project at home when her platelet count has dropped. It continues to help her feel “less anxious and more in control.”
The positive impact that Helen experienced while participating in the Arts + Healthcare program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital is one that many patients are now experiencing across our country. In fact, 45 percent of health care institutions in the United States now have an arts program.* The arts have been shown to enhance coping and reduce patients’ levels of depression and situational anxiety.**
Art Supports Patients, Caregivers and Families
Helen was introduced to the Arts + Healthcare program on her first day at the hospital.
“I complimented my nurse on a really great button she was wearing,” Helen says. “She said she made it through an Arts + Healthcare project for hospital employees. Then she told me how to get involved.”
Helen observed that Arts + Healthcare offers something for everyone.
“Patients, family members and staff get involved—even my sister, who normally wouldn’t be interested in doing a creative project,” Helen says. “In the hospital you are constantly looking for something to do, and everyone was so encouraging to dive in and enjoy the endless art supplies.”
Oftentimes health care environments are perceived as sterile and stressful to patients and their loved ones. Geeti Mahajan, a Washington University public health graduate student working with the Arts + Healthcare program, conducted a study about this in 2011. She found that patients who participate in the program are better able to see the hospital as welcoming and responsive to treating them as people, not just patients. Creative expression can be empowering and critical to a patient’s experience. Helen, whose view of the hospital was positive initially, said her impression was even more favorable after she was introduced to the program.
“Since I was in the hospital for over a month, my kids couldn’t always be here,” Helen says. “Through the program, we created a journal. I’d sketch a picture and write a note to them that they got to read when they visited. When they went home, they’d do the same and bring their message back for me. It helped us stay connected, gave us an opportunity to reflect and understand each other’s feelings.”
Arts + Healthcare Leaves a Long-Lasting Impact, Charitable Donors Make It Possible
Today Helen is finished with her chemotherapy treatment. When she is at Siteman for her weekly follow-up blood work, she often stops in the art room for a creative break. Also, she now does artwork at home.
“I feel more grounded and in touch with myself and my body now,” Helen says. “Arts + Healthcare gave me a present. I had a creative outlet so I didn’t feel trapped in the hospital. Now, I continue to enjoy
and benefit from the experience.”
The Arts + Healthcare program is made possible by donors who give charitable gifts to the program through The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
“I give to Arts + Healthcare because I believe strongly in the healing powers of art,” says Dwyer Brown, Foundation donor. “Art allows patients and their families to focus on something beautiful, interesting
or challenging rather than illness or pain. It’s wonderful to hear how the program has touched Helen...I see this program as part of a movement to include the arts and their healing tendencies in all aspects
Helen was grateful to meet so many people and see them being touched by Arts + Healthcare.
“It brings patients, family members and new friends together. We’d laugh and enjoy each other’s company. Some people would just sit and enjoy the social experience, appreciating that we all have something in common,” Helen says. “Arts + Healthcare gave us a sense of community and support.”
To support the Arts + Healthcare Program Fund (#6541) at The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital, give online now. If you have questions, please call David Sandler at (314) 362-3499 or email GivingBarnesJewish@bjc.org.
*State of the Field Committee. (2009). State of the field report: Arts in healthcare 2009. Washington, DC: Society for the Arts in Healthcare.
**Americans for the Arts. (2010). Strengthening our nation’s healthcare through the arts. Retrieved from http://www.artsusa.org/get_involved/advocacy/aad/issue_briefs/2010/advocacy_issuebrief_011.asp.