For the past six years, the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, the outpatient care facility adjacent to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, has organized an annual Celebration of Art and Life Exhibition. The display – which now comprises well over 100 framed paintings and photos— lines the walls of the Center’s atrium for the entire year. It is only during the few days needed to take down one year’s exhibit in preparation for the next that the walls are bare … and, ironically, that’s when art shows its true impact. “The empty walls seem so drab. You realize how much life it brings to the environment,” said Garry Scheib, chief operating officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and chief executive officer of HUP at the recent opening of this year’s exhibition.
More and more, studies are showing the positive impact of art on the healing process. “It is the heart and soul of medicine,” said Mahendra Bhati, MD, an assistant professor of Clinical Psychiatry. “It helps people perceive the world, and what we perceive can influence how we feel.”
Recognition of the art-medicine connection dates back more than a hundred years. In Notes on Nursing, published in 1860, Florence Nightingale wrote, “People say the effect is only on the mind. It is no such thing. The effect is on the body, too. Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form, by color, and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect.”
Throughout Penn Medicine, art and medicine interact on many levels, promoting healing and providing a better experience for patients, visitors, and staff. For example, art is not only on the walls at the Perelman Center but hanging from its ceiling and arranged on the atrium level.
“Art inspires hope,” said Marsha Moss, a public arts curator who helped guide the integration of arts into both the Perelman Center and the Smilow Translational Research Center. “It warms the environment with color and form and humor, creating a sense of well-being and energy for patients, staff, and visitors.” Art is also an important element at the Pavilion for Advanced Care at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Penn Medicine’s trauma center. “Impressions of Philadelphia” – 25 very large photos -- are displayed on patient care units and other public areas.
Art is especially critical on patient-care units, Bhati said. “A patient is put in a room with no comfort possessions, such as family pictures, and given a wristband with a barcode,” he said. “Art provides that comfort and brings in the humanistic element.” Staff in HUP’s neurosurgical intensive care unit added art around the nurses’ station, in the waiting area and in the consultation room, where families receive critical information about their loved ones and sometimes have to make life or death decisions.
Sometimes the art comes from patients themselves. Carolyn Sienicki, a patient who received a double cochlear implant, painted a picture – a “creation of gratitude” she called it – depicting unexpected moments of pleasure she has experienced (for example, “daughter’s concert, family dinners, my children giggling”) that have changed her life since she regained her sense of hearing.
But art’s impact in the health care world – and at Penn Medicine -- goes far beyond the environment. It helps us express how we feel and, according to Bhati, “evidence suggests that simply expressing how we feel is beneficial. The nonverbal aspects of what individuals experience, such as feelings and abstract emotions, are a perfect medium for artistic expression.”
Pennsylvania Hospital’s “Walkabout: Looking In, Looking Out” program uses mindfulness-based art therapy to help “free” cancer patients from the loss of control and fear it can generate. A new arts program for patients treated in Penn’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center helps them create collages illustrating their feelings – either present or past ---and then share them with the group. And the Abramson Cancer Center is pulling together a program that will debut in the fall that will use many types of media.
Art therapy also benefits hospice patients and their loved ones. At Penn’s Wissahickon Hospice, art is used to open conversations in a safe manner between patients and family members. Drawing “is a release of tensions and emotions. Patents use art to help process their fears about dying,” said Sarah Abramowitz of Penn Home Care and Hospice.
Art helps in the grieving process as well, especially for children. Abramowitz worked with a three-year-old deeply affected by his father’s death. Using several sheets of taped-together paper, she and the youngster drew a picture of the father. “He started with describing what his father’s face looked like as I drew. Then he drew a large body." Abramowitz then traced the child’s hands and feet and used them as his dad’s. The turning point came when Abramowitz taped the full drawing to the wall. “He needed something visual to connect with this dad,” she said. “His face lit up and he was jumping for joy.”