Hospital Art Show Sets the Stage for Healing

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For pediatric patients and their families, the weight of an unexpected medical diagnosis can be overwhelming. The carefree spirit of childhood can be swiftly replaced by a new life inside hospital walls. That’s what prompted 18-year-old Riley at IU Health patient Tomeek Smith to plan an art show. About twice a month, Smith spends 10 days in the hospital to receive blood transfusions and treatment for severe anemia. Long days spent connected to equipment took their toll. Art therapy projects soon became an outlet for Smith, who lives with constant treatment to manage her sickle cell hemochromatosis. Once she began to feel this way she suspected others felt the same and wanted to highlight the work of her fellow patients. The “Creativity is Contagious!” Inaugural Art Therapy Exhibition opened on the evening of October 15 in the Riley at IU Health Simon Family Tower, showcasing the work of more than 18 Riley at IU Health patients.

The inaugural art show attracted visitors from across the hospital. Riley at IU Health Chief Operating Officer Russ Williams attended the show and was impressed with its wide range of artwork. “Art therapy is one of the things that makes Riley Riley,” Williams explained. “It offers a unique way to engage kids and helps them deal with emotions they should not have to deal with at their age. We’re so fortunate to have this resource.”

Riley at IU Health Clinical Nurse Specialist JoEllen Rust also stopped by the art show to congratulate her patients who displayed their work. “I support the art therapy program because I know that it makes a difference for the kids and the parents,” Rust said. “Honestly, it makes a difference to us on the care team as well.” She explained that she values the chance to interact with a patient in a relaxed environment. “I get to watch my patients create something,” she added.

Rust said she enjoys seeing patients smiling, laughing and enjoying what they’re working on – something that is not always easy for them. “Riley prides itself on being kid-friendly and having a family centered environment,” Rust said. “Art therapy adds to the culture we have here.”Sometimes, therapy sessions extend to members of a patient’s family. The process can be particularly helpful for parents struggling with their child’s condition. One example: Melanie Estes, who has worked with the art therapy program for the past eight months. Her two-year-old son, Boaz, has been treated at Riley at IU Health over the past year for Beckwith Wiedemann Syndrome, a genetic condition causing enlarged organs and rapid body growth. Estes said her sessions with the art therapists have helped her stay calm and focused in the face of chaos.

Estes lived at her son’s bedside for months as he went through multiple surgeries. She washed her clothes in the hospital’s laundry room and at times felt like her spirit was broken. “The art therapists saved my life,” Estes said. After spending so much time under the grip of stress and fear, art provided an outlet for her to let go, giving her the clarity she needed to get through the next phase of her son’s treatment.

Art therapists Cassie Dobbs and Emily Allberry started out by bringing art supplies to Estes in her son’s room. They talked with her about Boaz’s treatment and asked how she was feeling. They treated her as a patient of their own, gently nudging her to take on her own mental health as a priority. Then, they left her alone with her supplies. In the last eight months, Estes has created more than 30 pieces of artwork. She said the colors brightened up Boaz’s room during times when she couldn’t find a reason to smile. “A lot of emotion went into my artwork. I look at them now and don’t think I could create them again. I don’t have that much in me.”

Estes said she has gained faith in her son’s recovery. “Starting out, my faith was small,” she said. “But through art therapy, I’ve been able to gain positivity again.”

In the end, that’s the goal shared by both Riley at IU Health art therapists. When faced with a difficult situation, many patients and family members have trouble expressing themselves. Art is visual. And at Riley at IU Health, it is a very real form of non-verbal communication. Art therapist Allberry added, “Art therapy is about process, not product. These art pieces are beautiful products, but to us it’s about the therapy that goes on with the patients.”

Check out more of the art featured at “Creativity is Contagious!

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