Art offers sense of escape for patients

By: Nadine Aljets .

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FARGO, N.D. — Twelve-year-old Jiry Rosecrans listens as McCal Johnson, art specialist at Sanford Health in Fargo, North Dakota, explains the art project they’re about to begin. Paint bottles, brushes, paper and pens spill across Jiry’s bed at Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center’s pediatric area.

In May 2015, she was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor that required immediate surgery. Now two years later, Jiry continues treatment at the center. Her family drives five hours roundtrip from Edmore, North Dakota, for the regular appointments.

Jiry’s eyes light up when she learns she’ll get to create her own print. She excitedly shares that hers will say, “Be Jiry Strong” – a saying her classmate came up with after she was diagnosed.

Art in medicine

Sanford Health facilities in Fargo, and Sioux Falls and Vermillion, South Dakota, offer an arts in medicine program. This provides many opportunities for patients, caregivers and staff members to participate in creating art.

The Sanford Arts Program works with thousands of patients throughout Sanford’s hospitals. Areas most frequented include cancer, inpatient rehab, the neonatal intensive care unit and children’s hospital patients; however, anyone who is interested in creating art can request a visit at applicable hospital locations.

Art and art making can “support wellness, reduce anxiety and create uplifting environments within health care settings,” said Ari Albright, artist in residence and arts program coordinator at Sanford Health in Vermillion.

“Exploring color, materials, texture, sound, music, movement, words, symbols and storytelling give individuals unique and positive ways to express and enhance their quality of life,” she said.

Johnson said they work with patients as young as 6 months old and tailor projects for patients’ physical and emotional strengths and disabilities.

“Patient creative needs vary from person to person, age to age and visit to visit,” she adds.

Art and cancer

For patients who have cancer creating art can be a meaningful way to express themselves.

“We recognize that cancer and treatment for cancer is stressful, anxiety-provoking, depressing, isolating, and those who have cancer or are caring for those with cancer can experience all of those emotions and more,” said Jessie Park, lead art specialist at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls.

“The arts are a very powerful tool in the treatment setting and allowing for – at the least – an aesthetically uplifting art piece, a creative moment and – at most – absence of pain and improved outlook on life. It can make a generous difference in their day-to-day treatment.”

Giving patients control

One important aspect art can bring to a patient’s day is control. When someone receives a cancer diagnosis, he or she may not have control over their disease or diagnosis, but the art can allow them to have control over the project, the colors used, the design aesthetic.

“Art works as a tool for expression, a stress-reliever, a time of comfort and distraction, and it provides a sense of purpose and accomplishment in a time when they have little control over their life,” said Johnson. “Art projects help to give patients a sense of purpose for their time spent during treatment and control over creating something beautiful and meaningful during a time when life feels dismantled.”

Park said giving people the ability to manipulate materials through creation provides positive benefits.

“When patients have not completed a certain type of modality, they walk away with a sense that they’ve learned something new, which is always beneficial in terms of creating good memories and feelings. Those miniscule things help the brain to produce good thoughts and further positive emotions which have all sorts of beneficial effects,” said Park.

And for some patients, it may not even be the end result of the project. Albright notes that their focus is on the process of making, not the final product.

A distraction from reality

As Johnson continues to go through the details of the abstract painting project that focuses on printmaking, Jiry smiles a little wider and laughs a little more freely. It’s a moment of escape from the treatments and the pain.

But like all good things, they come to an end. Reality hits as her pediatric oncologist steps into her room. He’s there to evaluate her recent health issues: vision problems, acid reflux, hand pain, a cough. It’s a long list for a girl just trying to be a regular seventh grader. But the doctor makes the visit easier with jokes and stories, and when he leaves, the art continues.

Jiry mixes paints and blends on the canvas that now has a big “Be Jiry Strong” across it.

As their art session wraps up, she proudly looks at her creation. Johnson smiles – knowing she’s made a difference even if for a brief moment – and says, “She’s Jiry strong.”

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Posted In Cancer, Children's, Health