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Gifts of Art: Therapeutic music and art at UMHS

Nicholas Williams/Daily
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By Sean Czarnecki, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 26, 2014

We walk into the dark of the hallway in the quiet hours of the hospital. A sheen of light stretches down the tile floor of the hallway, long and polished smooth. As we walk, the sheen of light retreats just ahead of our stride. We follow the light into the dark.

Today’s hospitals operate smoothly and always with an air of solemn importance. It makes you wonder whether its cold affectations ever put a distressed mind to rest, or rather they give you the impression that they are directing traffic. Creating warmth in an otherwise sterile environment is the essence of what Gifts of Art is all about. A program that has been part of the University of Michigan Health System since its inception in 1984, the mission of Gifts of Art is to reach out to folks struggling through a difficult time, to engage both patients and loved ones in the cathartic undertakings of art, and thus, to ease their healing process.

As Program Director of GOA, Elaine Sims, who has worked in the field of arts and healthcare since 1990, has seen the burgeoning of her field with a bird’s eye-view.

“The arts until the modern era were always present in healthcare,” Sims said, recalling the historical trajectory of the application of arts in healthcare. “They went their separate ways for a while, and then they reconnected.”

In the late 1980s GOA helped to develop an organization of people involved in applying arts to healthcare. In 1990, at a meeting held at the University of Michigan Health System, that same organization was named the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, which has since been renamed as the Global Alliance for Arts and Health. It is a coalition between people across the world with the common goal of, among other things, “advocating for the integration of the arts into the environment and delivery of care within healthcare facilities.”

“Medical culture in this country is just an enormous issue — access, funding, how we’re funded versus how other countries consider it a human right to have access to healthcare,” Sims said. Healthcare is a battle in this country, and arts now joins the fray as a “re-humanizing” force in the hospital.

Elaine Reed, who has been leading me through the hospital quiet hours, is the coordinator of GOA's Bedside Art program. She introduces me to a red-haired patient named Jackie Canamore. Jackie is a 64 year-old woman from Davison, MI. Her husband was originally treated for Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) which brought on another disease: acute leukemia. Since qualifying for a research program at the hospital, and undergoing further treatment, he is cancer-free. Now, they must wait for his blood count.

It is now the Canamores’ 63rd day at the hospital, and every day Jackie has gone to the hospital and waited at her husband’s bedside from nine in the morning to five in the evening. When we meet, she sits down heavily in a wheelchair in the hallway, with her husband asleep in the room. She has red hair and speaks with a folksy tone pleasing to listen to.

“I’ve never seen a 64 year-old color before,” Canamore said. “But I did, because I was so bored.”

Reed pushes a cart packed with small projects she gives out to patients — bracelets, pictures, coloring books. She had given Canamore four bracelets yesterday. Canamore made all four bracelets, and she has since given all four away, one to a valet because she enjoyed watching him with his family.

On that same floor on which the Canamores reside, Merideth Hume works as a unit host. Her responsibilities include connecting patients to the services offered by the hospital, such as GOA.

“The question Mrs. Canamore asked this morning was: ‘When is that gal coming around, you know, with the art carts?’ ” Hume said.

The art cart Reed pushes through the halls also carries replacements for the pictures in the patient’s room. She allows them to pick out a painting they like, talks to the patients about their choice, giving them a history of the work and the artist who painted it, and she hangs the it. It’s a small gesture, but important nonetheless.

“I’ve noticed this over the years: The artwork can make a huge difference,” Hume said.

The eighth floor is dark and somber, and in many ways, separate from the rest of GOA’s work. Downstairs, throughout the corridors and waiting lobbies, a passer-by will see evidence of Sims’s efforts hung on walls and stood in display cases, often with whimsical results. A clown with fat marks of face paint doffs his top hat. A frog carved from wood stares mystic-eyed out from the glass case into nothing, skin crawling with little turtles and frogs. Yet there is meditative work, too, being displayed: a blue rocking lawnchair, an oil canvas painting of a window opening to sunlight. Extravagant with art, the landscape of this hospital is a testament to GLAAH’s movement to enhance the landscape of hospitals across the world.

Carrie McClintock, the Communication Coordinator of GOA, has degrees in both Fine Arts and Performing Arts, having studied at Rice University and the University of Arizona.

“We’ve had staff tell us,” McClintock said, “That when they’re busy, going back and forth between different procedures, they stop for a few moments, taking in some of the art really calms them down and makes them feel more able to take on what’s next.”

She also explained that what they do at GOA is not music and art therapy; it’s therapeutic music and art — a distinction people often miss.

“It’s just for its own sake,” she said.

Yet there is also a sense of solidarity in what GOA does. In their most recent collaboration with the University of Michigan, GOA sought out the stories of both patients and staff — their wishes, hopes and dreams — which were then written down on blue pieces of paper and given over to School Art & Design Prof. Anne Mondro. She and her class then folded the pieces of paper into round fans — 1700 in all — into a design by an artist named Katy Bergman Cassell. Those stories are now rippling 16 feet in length in the form of a surging blue dragon. It is called the Dragon of Wishes, Hopes and Dreams — a permanent fixture in the University Hospital.

“A dragon is a symbol of transformation, so it’s very appropriate for the hospital,” McClintock said.

In the hallways the sound of live music can be heard playing in the rooms of patients, and even in waiting lobbies through a program called Music While You Wait. On March 20, Jazz and R&B artist Tracy Kash Thomas played her music for a tired group of folks in the main lobby of the University. This is her second time doing so.

“It’s wonderful that music is brought in to help with healing,” Thomas said. “And the audience is always so grateful, too. People are always just so enthusiastic about hearing live music in a place where you wouldn’t expect — in a hospital lobby.”

In one of their most popular programs, Bedside Music, GOA brings musicians into the rooms of patients, a much more intimate space than a lobby.

In the GOA workroom, Greg Maxwell tunes his guitar where he happily sits. As we spoke he played small riffs, his fingers instinctively set to play. He received his training from the Music for Healing and Transition Program, which is a national organization that prepares its members to play therapeutic music at patients’ bedsides. It is GOA policy that all bedside musicians receive training from MHTP, or an equivalent qualification.

“Because the hospital is a pretty high-intensity environment, it’s hard for people to relax,” Maxwell said. “And being able to relax is key to your healing.”

Part of the difficulty of Maxwell’s job as a bedside musician, for which MHTP has trained him, is being able to understand where a patient mentally lies on the spectrum of health, and how to apply the appropriate music.

“We start based on our observation and our assessment,” he said. “From there, we are continually observing the patient. If we need to shift our music, then we shift our music.”

“It’s amazing — the change in the atmosphere when a musician starts playing,” he went on. “I’m not joking when I tell people we will never have too much music in this hospital. It’s just not possible. Even with 28 volunteers (who play in public spaces), each one playing an hour a week, that’s out of hundreds of potential hours a week anywhere in this hospital, we’re still just scratching the surface.”

Canamore herself may be among those just below the surface — a musician has yet to come to her room.

“When I hear those musicians when I’m going back and forth to the door -- I love the music, especially the harp,” she said. “Sometimes when I come down into the Taubman Center, I’ll hear a piano player, they had jazz band down there one night, and it was really nice. I’m usually pretty busy, but I take a few minutes to enjoy the music, yes.”

The success of GOA in Ann Arbor feels like a blessing to Sims, whom McClintock described as “very instrumental in helping to propagate the field of arts in healthcare.” At GOA's disposal lies a vast pool of opportunity from which to draw resources and talent.

“I don’t want to go out on a limb, but ours is probably if not the most extensive and varied, (then it is) certainly one of the largest in the country, maybe even in the world,” Sims said.

Adding further to that success, Dr. Robert Kelch, former executive vice president for Medical Affairs, reserved five million dollars in institutional funds to match dollar for dollar any contribution made to GOA, an endowment that could amount to ten million dollars total. Perhaps most critical to the success of GOA, however, is the culture of the university itself

“We have the intellectual climate, the people that come and bring new ideas and new thinking which helps to stimulate and keep things growing and moving,” Sims said. “Sometimes, I feel like a kid in a candy shop here.”

As I leave the quiet hours of the eighth floor, and Canamore returns to her husband, and Reed returns to work, I take the elevator down to the main floor of the hospital. I pass the exhibits and galleries one more time. A few people stop and peer at the paintings, some stooping with their hands in their pockets, and move on to the next display. Outside in the courtyard, where GOA hosts outdoor concerts in the summer and spring, there is a small garden called the Friends Meditation Garden. In the winter, it is chained off, covered in snow, empty.

In the main floor lobby next to the wall is an exhibit showcasing an antiquated office of a doctor from another time. It lays behind a wall of glass. Everything inside sits perfect, unmoving — unsettling. Below, a short paragraph explains how hospitals were once charity organizations, and personal physicians the only reliable source of healthcare, and times were changed. When I finish reading, I look around at the paintings of Black men and women draped in African garb on the wall, the huge mobile hanging from the ceiling. I imagine the walls blank. I imagine the ceiling unadorned. A hospital without music. One must wonder if a hospital were a form of charity, what then would art be. I pick up my stuff and I leave.