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Actor/writer Joy Scime, PhD ’87, in a moment of joyful exuberance at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Professional artists bring comfort and imagination to those hospitalized
Story by Barbara A. Byers, Photos by Nancy J. Parisi
Art educator Leah Daniels Houghtaling works with a young patient at Women and Children’s Hospital.
Visual artist Pragna Hathi Wood, MA ’88 & BA ’85, encourages a patient at Roswell in his drawing.
SHE HAS BEEN IN the Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo for nearly seven weeks. Though she had been awakened from a nap and whisked away in her Radio Flyer wagon for an impromptu echocardiogram only moments before, 2 ½–year-old Coral, still sleepy and not especially happy, couldn’t resist the lure of the watercolors. She musters the energy to sit at the perfectly sized table and chair, and begins to paint with bright colors, dabbing some on the gauze bandage that is helping to protect her IV.
Coral is beloved by the artists-in-residence who have been with her throughout her treatment since she arrived 48 days before, and whose impact on her recovery has been incalculable. “I don’t have the accurate words to describe it,” says Coral’s dad, Ken. “It’s been invaluable for everyone’s happiness. When we were frustrated and just trying to soothe her, their timing couldn’t have been better.”
And that is precisely why the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts began its Arts in Healthcare Initiative nearly two years ago. After a year of planning, the initiative launched in October 2008 to bring performing and visual arts into health-care settings at the Women and Children’s Hospital and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Writer Cristina Pippa (center) with young patient friend at Women and Children’s Hospital, accompanied by Katherine Trapanovski, MBA ’00 & BS ’94, of UB’s Center for the Arts.
Tom Burrows, executive director of UB’s Center for the Arts, became inspired in 2007 after meeting Jill Sonke-Henderson, president of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare and pioneer of such a program at the University of Florida (UF), which began in 1990. Burrows was so struck by the UF initiative that he fast-tracked the concept and launched UB’s program within one year, with initial funding in place, two hospital partners, and 10 professional artists from Buffalo’s vast cultural community who have extensive experience in writing, music, dance, theater and the visual arts. Six of the artists are UB alumni.
The arts have long played a role in healing. “It goes back to before the Greeks,” Burrows says; throughout history the arts have been thought to positively affect the healing process. Self-expression, empowerment and transformation of the health-care environment are all goals of the initiative, he explains.
Visual artist Colleen Darby, BFA ’85, brings the comfort of art to a patient at Children’s. Ten professional artists are currently working as artists-in-residence in the Center for the Arts program.
“We have the luxury of time that other staff simply don’t have,” says Susan Reedy, MFA ’81, visual artist-in-residence at Women and Children’s. “It’s important for the kids to know that they have a voice and an outlet for self-expression. As a patient, a lot of times they are not very empowered and don’t have choices. But with us they do: We ask them, ‘What do you want to do? What color do you want to use?’ They’re given a choice, we follow their lead and that creates a sense of empowerment.”
The benefits of the Arts in Healthcare Initiative are not exclusively for patients, but rather extend to family members, hospital staff and caregivers as well. Visual artist Barbara Murak, who works at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, recalls a project she created for the wife of a patient. “Whenever the husband was heavily sedated and not moving, his wife would become very concerned, and she would stroke his face and cheeks. He seemed to recognize her touch, because he would calm down and stay asleep.”
Visual artist Barbara Murak traces with her own hand the hand of a patient on a pillow she made and designed. Murak created the pillow to help a patient’s wife alleviate her stress, when she couldn’t be at her husband’s bedside at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
The woman continued to keep vigil at her husband’s bedside, never letting go of his hand. “She told me she could not let go of his hand, from the time she arrived in the morning to the time she left in the evening.” The image of the couple resonated with Murak until she thought of a way to help the wife alleviate her stress at being away from the bedside. “I wanted to come up with a way to honor that touch, that closeness they have.” She brought in fabrics and asked the wife to choose one. Murak traced the husband’s hand on the fabric and then made it into a small pillow.
“She [the patient’s wife] held the pillow, and would put her hand over the top of her husband’s handprint,” Murak explains. “I visited again the following week, and the wife told me that she was sleeping much better now that she could leave and feel like she was still with him—because she takes the pillow with her. And at night when she can’t sleep, she has the pillow next to her in bed and puts her hand on his hand, and she feels like she’s still holding hands with him, and she is able to sleep through the night."
A number of factors make UB’s initiative unique, including the caliber of the artists. “These are all professional artists,” Burrows points out, “and we told them, ‘We want you because you are professional. We want you to continue with your art.’” He is careful to make the distinction between professional artists and art therapists. “We have great respect for the therapists; they absolutely have their place. This initiative is not arts therapy, though. This is a way to engage creatively.”
The collaborative nature of UB’s Arts in Healthcare Initiative is also unique and helped to procure initial funding from the John R. Oishei Foundation, whose mission is to enhance the quality of life for Buffalo-area residents by supporting education, health care, scientific research, and the cultural, social, civic and other charitable needs of the community. “The Oishei Foundation loved the idea of the collaboration between the university and our partner hospitals,” says Burrows. “And we made sure to bring the foundation together with our consultants from the University of Florida.”
Robert D. Gioia, BA ’76, president of the Oishei Foundation, comments, “Of all the requests that we get, this really had two significant points that caught our eye. Number one, it hit one of our sweet spots in the outcomes we’re looking for, and that’s healthier residents. Number two, it’s a model that works.”
A portion of the Oishei grant money was also set aside for research and curriculum development through partnerships with the UB schools of social work and nursing. Mansoor Kazi, research associate professor and director of the Program Evaluation Center in UB’s School of Social Work, has done an extensive review of the literature while also evaluating existing data from the Women and Children’s Hospital. Kazi and his research team analyzed secondary data from pediatric inpatient surveys the hospital routinely conducts: They compared the results from surveys taken three months before the project began with survey results collected after the first three months of the project’s launch.
“Early indications are that the Arts in Healthcare Initiative has had a positive impact,” on not only patients, but nursing staff and families as well, Kazi says. “The overall assessment went up … perceived cheerfulness of the hospital went up … care given at the hospital went up. All these factors are relevant to the initiative.” Kazi’s analysis will continue periodically, and will be compared to the baseline data to see how the initiative is impacting patient and staff satisfaction.
Loralee Sessanna, DNS ’06, assistant professor in the UB School of Nursing and an advanced board-certified holistic nurse, is taking a completely different research approach to the Arts in Healthcare Initiative. “I went to the opening introduction to the Arts in Healthcare Initiative and thought, ‘This is it, this is spirituality at its best.’” Sessanna’s research focuses on the meaning of spirituality and the role it plays in patient care practice. Through her research and literature review on spirituality, her internships in the field and experiences as a nurse, Sessanna defines spirituality as one’s “life meaning, purpose, connection to self and others, and transcendence,” which, she says, “may or may not include religion.”
Sessanna will qualitatively explore the meaning and role spirituality plays in the Arts in Healthcare Initiative among patients and health-care providers, and what effect the initiative may have on spiritual well-being and healing. Currently, she is working on developing an instrument to holistically measure spirituality based on her research findings.
The Arts in Healthcare Initiative falls perfectly within “Artistic Expression and Performing Arts,” one of the eight strategic strengths that comprise UB 2020, the university’s far-reaching plan for growth. “I think this is a marvelous illustration of how new and creative ways of combining some of the fundamental units we have on the campus can result in very interesting—and in this case, very responsive—initiatives for the benefit of the community,” says UB president John B. Simpson. “The Arts in Healthcare program is a vivid example of the power of the public research university, working in tandem with our partner institutions across the region, to make a meaningful and lasting difference in the communities we serve.”
As evidence of its emergence as a leader in the field, UB’s Center for the Arts hosted the Society for the Arts in Healthcare’s 20th annual international conference in April, and Burrows was recently named to the society’s board of directors as vice president. More than 300 students, educators, artists and health-care professionals from around the world attended the conference, which highlighted best practices, innovative programs and cutting-edge research, as well as the work being done in Western New York. An intensive training session for artists and health-care administrators was held in Buffalo this summer.
UB’s Arts in Healthcare Initiative has room to grow in Western New York, but will likely be done gradually, Burrows says. “I think what we intend to do now is to serve these two hospital partners totally and completely.” He hints, however, that other partners may be sought “when we get our feet a little more firmly planted—making sure we have the funding to help the hospitals continue.”
Barbara A. Byers is associate director of alumni relations at UB.