Miracle’s Journey: How Riley’s Art Therapy Program Helped One Preemie

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“We just didn’t know if Miracle would make it through the night,” Mililna Mullins says. But she did.

By the time she was wheeled into Riley at IU Health from a hospital in South Bend, Miracle Marie Simmons had already won her first battle. Born at 23 weeks, baby Miracle arrived into the world weighing a mere 600 grams (classifying her as a micro-preemie). “We were told that babies born that early sometimes don’t make it,” recalls her mother Mililna Mullins, “so I braced myself.”

Yet, despite being diagnosed with intestinal and cardiac defects, and then enduring an emergency surgery to stabilize the former issue, Miracle survived. A corrective heart surgery soon followed, Mullins says, leaving Miracle’s family riddled with worry. “We just didn’t know if Miracle would make it through the night,” she says.

But she did.

“And that’s when I knew, says Mullins. “My Miracle was a fighter.”

Fast forward to today and baby Miracle is doing well. The preemie has now climbed to a weight of 3 pounds, 5 ounces, a whopping increase from where she started, and is currently residing in Riley’s NICU. The worry and stress of the situation was almost crippling, recalls Mullins. One thing she credits for helping her cope: Art therapy. “My social worker at Riley recommended the program as a way to release stress,” recalls Mullins. “And I’m so glad she did. The moment I met Cassie, I got a good feeling.”

Cassie Dobbs, an art therapist at Riley, has worked with Mullins now for several weeks. “I’m currently one of two art therapists here,” says Dobbs. “We cover hematology, oncology, the heart center, the NICU, the burn center, and more.”

But what is art therapy? While many conjure up images of beautiful crafts, Dobbs explains that’s only part of the process. “Art therapists have a deep intent to help patients process hard times,” she says. And the role takes years of training. Dobbs is also a licensed professional counselor (meaning she has a Master’s degree in mental health counseling) who specializes in using art in the therapeutic process. “We have dialogues during art making, or sometimes it’s nonverbal. We see parents, patients and their siblings and since we are donor funded, people are not billed, it’s a free service,” Dobbs says. “Moms who participate in the program often get to know each other and talk about how they are processing things, so there are also friendships that bloom.”

The focus of art therapy visits can vary, Dobbs says, since people naturally fixate on different projects. Mullins, for instance, is currently creating a storybook to record her experiences at the hospital. “My book is titled Miracle’s Journey. It’s about three butterflies, since they change and grow and they are so resilient and beautiful.”

In the meantime, Mullins says the program continues to provide a calming release from the challenges that crop up day to day. “I appreciate art therapy,” she says. “And I’m honored to be a part of it.”

-- By Sarah Burns

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