The Artists

I meet Sandra Murphy-Pak, artist in residence. Sandra introduces herself as a generalist – she has a degree in arts education. She’s there to provide patients with arts activities, arts materials, supervise the volunteers (the A-team!) who work on arts projects with her, and liaise with Starlight – an independent organisation that supports paediatrics with materials and fund raising activities. Sandra is very softly spoken, takes her time to consider my questions, and is interested in giving me consider and thorough answers. She shows me the different arts locations – the office, storage room, and decides to follow up on a referral made by the nurses for a young man. She had checked on him twice on the previous day but had found him deeply asleep on both occasions. The sign on his door requires gowning and gloves – Sandra has checked in with the nurse, and now checks in with him before we gown up – He’s awake, and we go in. When we arrive he looks exhausted, and in pain – holding his guts and telling us how much pain he’s carrying. Sandra softly engages him – asking him if he likes drawing…if he would like any art materials…He tells us he has his own kit, Sandra expresses admiration, asks to see whats he’s doing…and so it goes. It turns out he would like some more materials, and he would particularly like to do some colouring in – but he’s quite specific about what he would and wouldn’t like. Sandra offers to do her best, and tells him she’ll be back after lunch. By the end of this conversation, the man’s posture is more relaxed, he is no longer holding onto himself, and he’s busy showing us his art work.

Before him we had been to visit a woman on the intensive unit who had requested some art materials. When we get there it turns out that she is insisting on going home – Against Medical Approval (AMA …i think I’ve got that right). There’s tension and a bit of a flurry. Very different from the calm one peopled rooms I have visited so far, this is your more traditional ward situation with lots of medical staff and machinery. Sandra deicides to go ahead and put together a pack for the lady in any case – which we collect – and returning, Sandra carefully goes into the curtained space, where the lady is levering herself out of bed. Its still tense, but there is that moment of stillness in the procedures where Sandra hands the husband the package, explains that maybe he would like to do this with his wife when the time is more appropriate. He accepts with a smile, and thanks come from the escapee as well. Its a quick exchange, and who knows how that art package will be used, but it is clear that the request for art was taken seriously, and honoured.

Later that afternoon I visit the Dance for Life programme – this is over on the campus, in the dance studio. Dance for Life is the programme run for people with Parkinson’s. Its part of both the outreach and research arms of Arts in Medicine. The same group of participants come three times a week, and the effects of the program is being tracked. I meet Emily Pozek, Dancer in residence. There is one participant. Emily explains that everyone else is on holiday or experiencing health complications, and one participant is always late, he might turn up. She compliments the gentleman on his good luck to be the one guy dancing with a group of ladies. There are three volunteers – young students from the college. Emily has worked with Dave Leventhal of the Mark Morris Dance Group – and the class structure is shaped accordingly – a thorough warm-up, very ballet and modern dance based, lots of counting, and some complicated coordinations. Another participant joins us – cracking jokes, and sharing his latest adventures – wise cracking about the ratio of ladies to gents. He is experiencing some health issues so tells us cheerfully that he’ll stay for as long as he feels is right. I notice that both participants have brought themselves to the studio. Its a very fun hour – we finish by creating a dance together.

This morning I attend the Artists Rounds – their weekly two hour staff meeting. Jill Sonke and Tina Mullen are there. Hosting or chairing the meeting is a gracious and lovely artist A- I sadly can’t quite remember her name exactly and don’t want to guess (apologies!!!) . She is the artist in residence who has been working on the ante-natal ward – creating arts projects for the expectant mothers. She begins the meeting by offering us all apples sweetened with honey to celebrate Rosh Hashanah – Jewish new year. As the apples move round the table, we introduce ourselves, starting with me. Everyone introduces themselves (kindly for my benefit). ‘A’ shares a beautiful poem with us about community and creativity. Everyone takes it in turn – “checking-in” – saying how they are that day – a range of comments from personal feelings to celebrating the cooler weather (Which is now like an English summer). Then business announcements. Next week the team will be beginning their 6 week blitz on collecting responses to their services from patients and families. Once a year there is an intense focus on collecting evidence – not that it is ignored the rest of the year – but in this way there is a unified and concerted effort to produce the much need evidence. Then its time to share clinical stories. Each artist takes it in turn to share a few case studies – general, or specific – Tina makes suggestions, offers ideas, clarifies concerns. Each artist receives a “good work” and “thank you” from her. Jill makes suggestions, or clarifies information. It is clear from the meeting, and I had gathered this from conversations with individuals, just how much these artists work together – referring patients to one another, doing sessions together, offering advice or tools or techniques. Some are more engaged than others at the meeting, but over all its clear that this is a valued and safe space for colleagues to come together and reflect and share their practice. Weekly.

One aspect of the program I have noticed is how the network of program deliverers seems to have grown organically. A weaving together of hospital need and bringing good practice into the programme. Sometimes its a matter of somebody hearing about the project, interning for a while, and then being invited to take up a position. Sometimes, Jill or Tina have noticed an artist in the community doing good work and have invited them to join the program. Or a post is advertised. Appointment seems shaped by need, as it appears, or by wanting to bring a good practitioner and their practice into the program, and finding the appropriate area for them to work.

Finally, this afternoon I shadow Dylan Klempner who delivers the Mobile Inspiration Station – bedside activities that inspire activity and prompt peace of mind. Dylan is very careful, gentle, thoughtful. Originally a writer, and from a family of artists, he is unwilling to narrow his practice or role, preferring to say he brings in a lot of different techniques. He also delivers the Tai chi sessions for staff and families. Unwilling also to promote himself as an artist, he defers to the notion that its his patients that bring the creativity to the table, and he is more a facilitator, or provider. His very gentle and attentive manner means that when we visit two initially reluctant people who both start out by stating they haven’t really got the time, within a few minutes Dylan has skilfully drawn them into conversation, and engaged their attention for long enough and well enough for them to shift their attention. One wife who is very anxiously awaiting to hear how her husband’s operation has proceeded, relaxes enough to tell us many stories about her past, her family and Disney land. Conversation is created and shared. rather than a piece of work as such -but this is deemed to be acceptable and worthy.

A second, young woman, tells us she can’t talk because she’s awaiting an important phone call. Dylan notices her art materials on a side-table and invites her to tell us more…by the end of the time together we are all four (Dylan has a volunteer with him) drawing collaboratively together, on her bed, and really enjoying our conversation. Both the volunteer and Dylan pop out at different moments to acquire the arts materials she asks for. Its the most extraordinary visit – this woman is very determined, and has led a very chequered and rich life – and is very open about sharing it. Dylan began his rounds by checking in with the social worker and occupational therapist. They give him a list of people they think it would be appropriate for hime to work with. Although Dylan is very self-effacing, they make it very clear that they value his service, and enjoy collaborating with him.

I wanted to give a sense of the different kinds of creative work happening within the Arts in Medicine program. Altogether there are 18 artists on board. It has been total delight to spend time with some of them, to meet them and enjoy their skills and experiences. And it has been a delight to meet through the artists, some wonderful people from the hospital community. Wonderful to be able to be hands on and included in the very different sessions. I am full of envy at the possibility of begin able to work with patients directly, on a one-to one basis, in their individual rooms. I am appreciative of the endorsement these artists receive – for the most part – from the health care practitioners. I watch nurses and doctors give the space and time for the artists to do their work, acceding to their expertise and benefit value.

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