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Healing through art a life-changing experience

By Leanne Nyirfa

03/25/2015

SASKATOON — Many things contribute to a positive healing experience within a hospital, including medical expertise and respectful and compassionate care by physicians, health care personnel, staff and volunteers. But for patients at St. Paul’s Hospital, where the core values go further to include holistic care, the process of healing the body, mind and spirit is enhanced through art.

St. Paul’s is the first hospital in Saskatoon to deliver a program that fosters healing through art. The Healing Arts Program’s visual arts component is led by artist in residence Marlessa Wesolowski. Since 2005, the hospital has been using the creative arts to enhance the well-being of patients, families, caregivers and the community.

“When someone is ill and feeling vulnerable, it can be difficult to articulate with words what may be going on inside,” says Wesolowski. “At St. Paul’s Hospital, we’ve created safe spaces where patients can use their imagination to express themselves, and create meaning through visual art, music and literary arts.”

Wesolowski says most patients are skeptical about their ability to create. Her role is to support and encourage them to reach a creative state where they are so focused on their art they forget their pain.

“In this creative state, patients also develop confidence. They can be productive even if they are ill, and that is so important to well-being,” says Wesolowski. “My goal is to help get them to that feeling.”

Patients are referred to the artist in residence by doctors, nurses and other health care staff. She connects with patients at their bedside or in common spaces using a mobile studio, or meets them in the hospital art studio.

“Creating art in the studio is liberating for patients; we get them out of their rooms and engaging with people in a different environment where the focus isn’t on illness, but on creating. The studio is an inspiring space.”

Finished artwork is often put up in patients’ rooms and rotated around the hospital. “The walls of this hospital tell the stories of our patients, adding to the special healing environment that already exists here,” says Wesolowski.

Ken Brevik, a 42-year-old former patient at St. Paul’s, says Wesolowski and the Healing Arts Program changed his life. In hospital for surgery from a work-related accident, Brevik also suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping.

“I was nervous about painting, but once I started, I stopped watching the clock to see when it was time to take my medication because I forgot about my pain,” says Brevik.

He says the program also helped him with his mental state. “I’m more comfortable with myself, I find it easier to talk to people I don’t know, and I sleep better,” says Brevik. “I feel like I have control of my life again.”

The Healing Arts Program also has positive effects on patient families. The children of 91-year-old Stan Macdonald had the opportunity to paint together with their father before he passed away in late December.

“Marlessa asked my brother and my father to paint something that was meaningful to them both,” says daughter Brenda Rutherford. “They did a painting of Grey Owl’s cabin in memory of a trip they had taken there together, and I had a chance to add to the painting when I visited Dad. So now we have this framed family memory of painting together in his last days, which is very special.”

Rutherford says the Healing Arts Program brought out the sparkle in her father’s eyes in his last days. “His paintings, which he called The Purple Cow and Smiley, let us know that even in Dad’s final days he was still able to find joy in his life.”

Wesolowski says it’s a privilege to come to work and make a difference in peoples’ lives. “The opportunity to see how creative expression contributes to the spiritual, emotional and mental elements of human health, and to be a part of peoples’ lives when they’re dealing with illness, is truly gratifying.”

The Healing Arts Program is presented by the Mission Office in collaboration with Volunteer Workforce, and is funded by St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation. In addition to art, the program includes music therapy with Lisa Wutch. Volunteer musicians, vocalists, and poets add to the beneficial program by sharing their gifts with patients, families and everyone in the facility.

The program also partners with core neighbourhood organizations and schools to create art in the studio, which is periodically displayed throughout the hospital. This contributes to the healing environment at St. Paul’s and brings the program’s benefits to the community.

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