Hospitals don’t exactly radiate warmth and coziness. Those who have spent countless agonizing hours passing the time as smoothly as the human body passes a kidney stone know too well how bleak hospitals can feel. The sterile décor. Needles. Disillusioned states of consciousness primed by prescription drugs.

There can definitely be brutal moments for hospital patients. That’s why people like Elaine Sims, director of the Gifts of Art program at the University of Michigan Health System, are doing their best to ease the experience.

“Health care has become so advanced and complex in such a brief time that somewhere the patient’s identity was lost,” Sims said.

With Gifts of Art, there are many opportunities for patients to regain that identity. They can choose a favorite painting for their room from the Art Cart, an actual cart of framed poster art that volunteers wheel from room to room. If a patient would rather listen to music, he can request bedside musicians. The performers range from School of Music, Theatre and Dance students to established musicians like harpist Julie Hussar, the head of the Bedside Music Program.

The most celebrated accomplishment of Gifts of Art is “The Dragon of Wishes, Hopes and Dreams,” a collaborative effort with Anne Mondro, an assistant professor in the School of Art and Design. The 16-foot dragon is comprised of more than 1,700 paper fans that contain inspirational words and pictures. Located outside the University Hospital Main Lobby, the dragon is dedicated to the patients, visitors and staff of UMHS.

The idea of art in health care may seem relatively novel, but it has been in place for a while at UMHS. Gifts of Art, which dates back to the mid-’80s. It was one of the first programs in the “arts in health care” movement, a fact Sims championed.

“This campus should know that we as a university helped start and further the trend, which is no longer a trend, but a worldwide movement,” she said.

She isn’t exaggerating. Sims is also a member of Arts in Healthcare Advocates, a group founded by seven health care administrators and practitioners around the country who run programs similar to Gifts of Art.

The members of AHA were recently featured in an interview on “Health Matters,” a radio show hosted by registered nurse Rachel Rockafellow. The show airs on Yellowstone Public Radio and is based in Montana.

Among those interviewed on the show was Dr. Julie Prazich, a doctor and artist for San Diego Hospice and Palliative Care. Prazich recalled an experience in which she met with a patient who was tired of doctors and turned her away. Prazich went back to her car, donned an artist’s cap and returned as an artist. She was then able to connect with the patient, and the two painted together.

“I can’t imagine my practice without having art involved in some way,” Prazich said in the interview.

Another AHA member interviewed was Tina Mullen, who heads Shands Arts in Medicine in Gainesville, Fla. Mullen’s program, which is partnered with the University of Florida Health Science Center, educates health care professionals by showing them how to apply the arts in a health care setting.

“One of the things we envision at Arts in Healthcare Advocates is lots of doctors using their practice the way Julie (Prazich) described she uses hers,” Mullen said. “But to get there, I think you have to get to these (medical students) when they’re in school.”

Mullen’s program includes a mandatory curriculum for medical students at the University of Florida, where they access their creative side through reflective writing classes.

The members of AHA are successfully integrating the arts into health care every day. They work constantly to maintain funding through grants and donations. Their success establishes arts programs as essential for hospitals, just as Elaine Sims has here with Gifts of Art.

Regardless of whether you are a patient seeking a few peaceful moments in the Friends Meditation Garden or you’re simply a visitor enjoying a volunteer playing the baby grand in the lobby, Gifts of Art is doing its best to ensure the arts are an integral part of health care at UMHS.

“The arts are a clear need in a person – they better the quality of life,” Sims said. “It’s a hunger; art feeds the patients.”

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