Long Live the Arts
July 28, 2013

Long Live The Arts

When I was a little girl, I did not get sick all that often, but when I did, I was weak, bored, and frustrated. I did not want to be stuck in my bedroom, alone and feeling badly. I remember that my parents would always have me be creative. Sometimes that was by coloring, other times I drew or painted or crocheted, and most often I wrote stories. I remember that being creative really made me feel better. Sure, the activities did not cure my illness, but I felt like I was doing more than just laying in bed feeling gross. I was doing something other than giving in to my illness.

Today, more and more hospitals are incorporating the arts in healing. CNN recently discussed one good example of a hospital with an arts program. The hospital happens to be the very one where I was born, the University of New Mexico (UNM) Hospital. The hospital has a program called the Arts-in-Medicine program, where artists of varying areas circulate in the hospital to help patients, their families, and staff in dealing with illness. As the CNN article explains,

“A troupe of actors, dancers, writers, musicians, visual artists and movement specialists rove the different sections of the hospital. Painters might be found on any given day in the cancer center, dancers in the psychiatric unit and harpists providing musical sustenance on any given floor.

Their mission is to facilitate “creative encounters” that can help patients and their families discover new meaning in life and death, or “just for fun,” as Repar puts it. Sometimes, this can be as simple as playing music at a patient’s bedside to help them calm down or sleep.”

Patricia Repar is one such artist. In fact, she is the director of the Arts-in-Medicine program, as well as one of the artists who spreads creativity amongst the hospital community. The University of New Mexico Hospital’s Arts-in-Medicine program has been in existence since 2002, when it was only active during the nine-month school year. Then it served 2,000 patients, family members, and staff with a budget of only $10,000 (USD). In the past year, the budget was 14 times larger at $140,000 and the program served 34,000 people.

So, what are some of the benefits of the Arts-in-Medicine program? Well, according to Dr. Chris Camarata, a UNM assistant professor of family and community medicine,  a wide range of benefits have presented themselves in patients who have participated in the arts program.

“‘I’ve seen definite symptom improvement,’ says Camarata, including reductions in pain and even reductions in the amount of pain medicine required, nausea and anxiety in people who are exposed to the arts while in the hospital. He has also seen depressed patients respond to the arts, even when they don’t respond to other people.”

One such example is Max Chavez, 60, who has colon cancer that has spread to his liver and possibly his chest and spinal cord. He must endure four-hour long chemotherapy sessions. For him, “art has become a way to deal with depression and simply pass the time.”

And really it has become more than that.  After trying his hand at art and making art cards that he actually sends to various people, including the head of the UNM Cancer Center, who displays it on her desk, he has started being more artistic and creative in his personal life.

In his own words, “The art helped me pass the time away and gave me something to do creatively that I wasn’t doing because I was pretty depressed…I didn’t have the energy to do much physical work (but) … I was able to sit at a table and be creative and not exhaust myself…The neatest thing about it was I went home and started doing artwork.”

For Chavez, the artwork was a great inspiration. He is back at work while still undergoing chemotherapy, and still making art.

The UNM Hospital has countless stories where art in its various forms has helped patients, family members, and staff. For some, the art is distraction from the current illness while for others it helps to relax and calm them. Some others still find meaning and inspiration through their participation in art.

At a time when arts are being cut from schools, here we have an example of just how important they can be in our lives. Arts are not blow off. They are not distractions. Arts contribute to a greater, more well-rounded life. Through an art like music, we learn mathematics. Through writing, we understand logic as well as imagination. Through the visual arts, we build hand-eye coordination. And there are so many other benefits to the arts.

Let us not forget how important creativity is to our lives and our health.

Image Credit: Margreet de Groot / Shutterstock

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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