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Art & Healing

Ten years ago, Sarah Colby established the Arts + Healthcare program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. With a master of fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, her background encompassed 25 years of teaching and administrative positions at art schools, community art centers and children’s arts programs in Baltimore, New York City, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Though her experiences had prepared her for most any position dealing with the arts and people, she tackled a new set of challenges when she became part of the complex world of a large teaching hospital.

During a recent interview, Colby talked about the arts and healing, about how art can affect the lives of patients and staff members, and how she has learned to deeply appreciate the human impulse to create, no matter the circumstances. 

With a background in academia, you chose a new path by taking responsibility for developing the Arts + Healthcare program. Why?
When I moved to St. Louis 16 years ago, I began working with young people and children through several organizations. When I moved from academia “out into the world,” I came to realize how important art is to all people, not just to those who make it their life’s work. This experience reinforced my belief that art completes us, whether we explore it visually, listen to it or receive it in some other way — it’s the best of what makes us human beings.

Then I met the director of Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s Arts as Healing program, the precursor to Arts + Healthcare. She explained what she was doing — much of her focus was working with people who had cancer — and I thought the idea of bringing art into a hospital setting was fascinating. When she left the position, the opportunity to develop a new program for Barnes-Jewish Hospital came my way.

Artist and philanthropist Bunny Burson was a catalyst. She was a powerful force in arts and health care in Nashville years ago, and she was a passionate advocate for an arts program at the hospital after she moved to St. Louis. 

How do you start a program like this?
I spent time researching hospital-based arts programs and visited a few, especially in the Midwest. The director of the Gifts of Art program at the University of Michigan Medical School consulted with me here in St. Louis, and she gave me valuable pieces of advice: Develop an in-depth understanding of the Barnes-Jewish Hospital community and become part of it rather than remain outside of it. Realize your colleagues will be an incredible resource. Take on the challenge without fear. And, finally, understand it will take at least five years to get the program off the ground. That last piece was a bit of a surprise!

And how did you get it off the ground?
It started quietly. I began by talking with staff members, especially nurse managers. I described the vision I had for the program — to include the arts as an integral aspect of the healing environment for patients, families and caregivers. I wanted to create an environment of respite and renewal in the midst of what can be stressful.

How was your vision received by others?
There was some good-natured uncertainty but also a willingness to give it a try. In time, I started getting phone calls, like one about a patient in the ICU who was restless and making a lot of demands of the nurses. I visited him, bringing along a few simple things — playdough and pipe cleaners — and he began making little presents for the nurses. Another call was about a patient with mental health issues who discovered she enjoyed using a hat loom, calling it her “coping mechanism.”

As more people throughout the hospital realized the worth of the program, it became an amazing collaborative project. Now I get calls not only from nurses, but also from patient-care techs and housekeeping staff members, too. When they become aware of a patient who might benefit from a creative diversion, they think of Arts + Healthcare. It’s truly gratifying to have gained that kind of acceptance and support.

What programs does Arts + Healthcare offer?
We have an art cart stocked with supplies that can be wheeled to patients in their rooms. And patients, family members and staff can visit our art room to spend some time in creative pursuits. We also schedule volunteer musicians who perform in the Center for Advanced Medicine. And the Missouri Botanical Garden regularly sends specialists to meet with patients for therapeutic horticulture sessions.

The opportunity to work with staff members to develop creative activities in their own units or departments has been especially rewarding. And it is a privilege to offer renewal workshops that provide creative experiences for staff members who might need some respite from their roles as caregivers.

What has been most rewarding for you?
I feel honored every single day that people allow me to enter chapters in their lives that may be the most critical they will experience. My interactions with them are like a pearl necklace — lovely, distinct experiences connected through the universal appeal and solace of art.

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