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Visual Art As Healing

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

(This is the second essay in a series about Patient Storytelling).

In the midst of this global pandemic, COVID has turned many people into patients. All of these folks need support to heal. Now is the time to think seriously and creatively about healing.

When I had breast cancer, I took photos to count down the days while I was in radiation treatment three years ago. The cancer hospital wasn’t interested in them, but I was lucky enough to have a friend who is a visual artist, Lelainia Lloyd, who took me under her wing.

Lelainia invited me to her home to teach me how to transform the digital photos on my phone into a physical paper collage. There was something soothing about cutting out my now-printed images and arranging them on a page. I had pictures of the inside of the cancer hospital, photos of my family, snapshots I had taken outside during my walks after my radiation treatment. With Lelainia’s gentle guidance, I created a collage (pictured above) that represented those 20 days of radiation.

I have a hard time describing how much creating this collage meant to me. Part of was Lelainia’s generous donation of her time to teach me how to collage. After being dismissed by the patient experience person at my own cancer hospital, Lelainia made me feel as if I mattered. She saw me, and supported me to turn the photos, a symbol of my suffering, into something tangible.

During our art session, we chatted, but we mostly sat in silence working on our own projects. The process of cutting, arranging and pasting was itself meditative and peaceful. In the end, I had a collage that I could hold in my hand that represented those 20 dark days in June. It felt like I could finally close that door.

Art therapy is a real thing. It is a profession. It can help with depression and fatigue. Art therapy can be used to alleviate cancer symptoms.

Health care has a history of minimizing the humanities, but there is a great amount of research that says that complementary therapies involving the arts can help patients. How I felt after I made my little collage is all the evidence I need.

Dr. Rana Awdish is both a writer and painter who is a champion of notion that art heals. This Huffington Post article is about another creative, Ted Meyer, who now works at USC Keck School of Medicine and uses his art to teach future doctors. The healing power of the arts extends out to the world of health care design too. Visual art in health care is such a rich yet unexplored area in practice.

Patients – and health care professionals too – whether they are artists like Lelainia or amateurs like me, can use the visual arts to share stories. Standing behind a podium is only one way to tell a story. Expanding the definition of what a ‘story’ looks like into prose, poetry, photography, visual art, music, and film can help engage a wide range of storytellers.

Giving folks tools to tell their health care stories beyond a microphone may be the answer to the lack of diversity in patient stories. More on that in my next essay, which is tentatively titled: Oh No, Not More Patient Representation From Middle-Aged, Middle-Class White Women Like Me.


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