Healing arts

Program offers a source of solace in a stressful situation

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Print this page by Tim Thornton

It would be difficult not to notice the presence of art at Carilion Clinic.

“We’re very focused on local art,” says Nancy Agee, Carilion’s CEO and president. “That’s not just appealing to patients. It’s also important for healing, and it sort of stimulates the creativity of caregivers and scientists.”

Carilion’s website explains that benefits of its healing arts program include shortened hospital stays, reduced need for pain medication, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and reduced stress and anxiety.

Carilion’s Dr. Robert L.A. Keeley Healing Arts Program puts art in lots of places, but the initiative also includes a healing garden, a labyrinth, art shows for Carilion employees and patients and the Burden Boat Sculpture. People passing the boat in the lobby of Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital are invited to write down their burdens and place them in the boat, a symbolic letting go. The collected “burdens” are ceremonially burned.

“Their focus on arts as part of healing has been present, in various forms, for a number of years,” says Cara Modisett, Carilion’s artist in residence in summer 2014. “As an artist in a number of genres, I understand and see significant value in that.”

One reason Modisett wanted to be involved was her experiences as a patient. She had three heart surgeries by the time she was 10.

“When I was a patient, even as a young child, I remember friends sending me things like modeling clay and books that I could be creative with and colored markers and things like that,” Modisett says. “A friend that became my seventh-grade English teacher sent me a journal, a blank book. I wrote stories in it about my surgery and my hospitalization from the point of view of a stuffed unicorn I had been given.”

As artist in residence Modisett encouraged other people to engage in art. She took patients stacks of journals with writing prompts, topics around which someone can start jotting down ideas.

She conducted writing workshops with the staff. She left boxes with writing prompts and paper and pencils all around the hospital. She edited one of Carilion’s Poems in the Waiting Room publications, including a piece crafted from the responses in those boxes. She wrote in public spaces, which inevitably led to conversations with visitors, staff and patients that became part of her work.

Modisett also is a pianist, so she played piano in the hospital alone and with cellist David Feldman. The most affecting project for Modisett was Family Treasures — helping terminally ill patients create things to leave behind. She especially remembers a woman in her 20s who wanted to create something for her young son. Modisett helped her gather and photograph significant objects from the boy’s life. Modisett helped the mother create a book of memories and messages for her son.

“Art expresses the deepest part of us,” Modisett says, “and a hospital is where the most profound, heartbreaking, joyous, frightening, wonderful things are happening every single day.”

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