Their “Hearts Grow Wild”

Program Director Janice Baker displays one of the pieces from this year's program. Samantha Sims Photos. 

Program Director Janice Baker displays one of the pieces from this year's program. Samantha Sims Photos. 

16-year-old Alexa didn't have writing on her radar when she entered Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital earlier this year. Nor, perhaps, collage art and music. Then she and her family discovered the hospital’s "Arts for Healing" program

I am a tree, she wrote earlier this year.
my branches are long and thick
so that creatures, squirrels and birds, can live in me
I care for them
I can be their new home if their old home gets destroyed.

Established in 2003, the program is intended to reduce anxiety, build relationships with care providers, and unify and strengthen families through creative expression—notably poetry, music, digital, and visual art. This Friday, the program will host its second annual Art of Compassion self-care event in the Smilow Healing Garden.  Titled “Our Hearts Grow Wild,” the event brings a year looking at nature as a creative catalyst to an end, with patients’ work on display for the summer.  

Arts for Healing lives with the hospital’s department of Child Life, where specialists help accustom young patients to the unfamiliar, clinical environment and also support their social and emotional development during protracted stays. Through learning experiences couched in friendly, age-appropriate language, Child Life seeks to guide hospitalized kids to a better understanding of their own bodies and individual health conditions. Like Alexa, who used the language of nature to compare her body to a tree:

Rashmi Talpade and Janice Baker. 

Rashmi Talpade and Janice Baker. 

I let my feelings get the best of me,
I let my guard down, it’s overwhelming.
The tree begins to become weak
due to internal damage,
I push away the root, pushing away
its own support
then I’m not being stable and fall into a deep dark hole
afraid that I wouldn’t get back out

Arts for Healing Program Director Janice Baker explained how art activities allow patients to reinvent the hospital space. There are photography projects, for instance, where participants manipulate images with an array of filters and effects let children regain “a sense of control, normalcy, and meaning” despite traumas, an accident, or an illness beyond their influence. Poetry, in which young writers can explore language and creative writing in relation to everything going on around them. 

“It allows them to form an entirely different insight on their experience,” said Baker. “When we give you a camera, a video camera for instance, and you start to take pictures of things around the room, it changes your relationship with that space. You can take those pictures and do whatever you want to them—distort it, add sound effects and have fun with it. Then, it suddenly becomes your art and something you can control.”

The program embraces an assortment of different art therapy strategies: digital storytelling, video, collages, writing, music, and work with more traditional visual art materials. 

The Arts for Healing team delivers artmaking both through individual meetings as well as through daily sessions in the Children’s Hospital shared activity room. Baker said that the latter space is integral to making families feel supported by the hospital and involved in their child’s care. 

“The illness affects not only the child, but the rest of the family,” she said. “They are stressed as well. The activity is something constructive for them to do instead of sitting by the side of the bed, watching television.” 

Arts for Healing Writer-in-Residence Sanna Stanley and Artist-in-Residence Ali Basler remarked how coming to the activity room gives patients a much needed break: no nurses are allowed inside. Craft serves as a friendly reminder that patients are “still ‘here’ and capable of making something beautiful.”  

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“It’s a process,” said Stanley. “One that requires patience, hope, and inspiration. Art allows patients to be fully immersed in the creative process rather than their pain.”

Baker emphasized how art is ambulatory. Activities get patients active again—on their feet, on their way to the common room, and on their way to a speedy discharge.

“If you get up and out of bed and move the day after surgery your body begins to speed up,” she said. “Getting out of bed has a really big correlation with shortening the length of stay in the hospital. When your body lies in bed for a really long time, it doesn’t take long for things to become very de-conditioned or weak. Bodies are meant to move!”

Every year the Arts for Healing program takes on a new theme. This year’s subject comes from the local, civically-engaged collage artist Rashmi Talpade. Baker and Talpade first met at a regional meeting of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven last year, and then began working with one another in December 2017. Baker remarked that collaborating with artists like Talpade is one of the best perks of her job.

“I have a great group of people that support me and I support them,” she said. “I think that’s also what we try to offer our patients. I think they love being able to work with professional artists and that they are empowered by what they achieve when they think they can’t do it.”

Talpade’s topic for 2018 combines landscape imagery with the arts and healing. Baker described the significance of choosing nature for a theme as opposed to something else.

“There are a lot of studies about the positive effects of even viewing natural images. Hospitals are very careful, nowadays to include views of nature or to include artwork that has peaceful views of nature.”  

That list includes Yale-New Haven Hospital. The facility has recently installed a healing garden on the rooftop of the Smilow Cancer Hospital that is visible from rooms and open to the Children’s Hospital’s pediatric patients to explore. 

Much of the Arts for Healing methodology departs from the finding that stress for a prolonged amount of time can exacerbate disease by dampening the immune system and wearing down body parts. In the case of Talpade’s theme, exposure to nature promotes a sense of calm and provides a concrete opportunity for patients to imagine a literal environment beyond the hospital environment—what Baker calls the patient’s “happy place.”

Patients share this vision through watercolor and gouache sketches, leaf rubbings, poetry, and even homemade birdhouses. The birdhouses, in particular, are a literal place—a three-dimensional enclosure that reminds patients of their own safe spaces where they feel the most at home and present. Constructing the birdhouse lets patients get outside of their own heads and think about providing shelter for another living creature; it activates a complex of care and compassion for all living things consonant with the hospital’s caring environment.

Now on the eve of Arts for Healing’s culminating event, Baker has found herself thinking about the art like agriculture.  

“We planted this art and poetry in the garden in June and we’ll harvest it by the end of the summer, the beginning of August!” she joked. 

Baker advises her colleagues who do not feel as strongly about the clinical benefits of creativity to look at the art on exhibition, observe its production, or experience the process itself. She noted that when the art-skeptical take her advice, and do what their patients do, they often discover that art “transports [them] away from this space and to internal space” in a way conducive to a general wellbeing. 

Baker also described major plans for Arts for Healing moving forward. She said she would like more permanent funding, as the program is currently operated through a grant. She also wants to increase staff time so they are able to offer more services to patients. 

Specifically, Baker wants to station a part-time music therapist in the Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU. Music therapists help expose babies to environmental stimuli beyond the womb, by singing lullabies and other songs. Baker said she has long-term goals for even deeper musical interventions, including a plan to incorporate a recording studio somewhere within the hospital. 

Baker added that within the past year alone, she has noticed a huge difference in how art therapy advances the care of children admitted for behavioral health crises. Angry or distressed kids often feel much better after sitting down with a therapist for only a few hours. Baker said she hoped that by educating her fellow hospital administrators in the uses of art for healing, the Arts for Healing program might reach similar breakthroughs. 

“Health isn’t just the absence of physical ailment or illness, but also the social, emotional, spiritual, and whole sense of wellbeing," she said. "Services like Arts for Healing helps people to increase their sense of wellbeing!”