The COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on the deep need that people feel for human touch and connection in hospital settings. Having relatives peering through windows at their loved ones or unable to enter hospitals altogether exacerbated the lack of human intimacy that is all too common in health care settings.
Opportunities for creative expression through arts in medicine programs are increasing in U.S. hospitals, and it may be because art-making offers something that medicine can’t. Evidence shows that taking part in art programs has many therapeutic benefits, such as reducing anxiety and stress, supporting mental health and well-being and connecting people to one another.
Research has also shown that these programs can bring relief from the stresses and burnout that health care workers regularly experience.
As a medical anthropologist studying how to support people who are facing serious illness, as well as those who care for them, one of my research interests is the intersection of arts and medicine.
These types of clinical benefits are certainly valued. But what people I spoke with shared that was the most transformative for them were the ways art-making allowed them to feel more fully human.
One example is at the MD Anderson Cancer Centers in Houston. Ian Cion founded the hospital’s arts in medicine program in 2010. In 2014, he worked closely with more than 1,300 MD Anderson patients, their family members and staff to create a life-size paper dragon sculpture – one scale at a time.
Cion built the dragon’s frame in his home out of popsicle sticks, wire and cardboard and then placed the 9-foot frame inside a high-traffic area in the hospital. Young cancer patients, their families and the entire hospital community were invited to create scales, which they filled with their hopes, prayers and favorite images. A row of scales could be finished and placed on the dragon in 45 minutes or less, but it still took months for the project to be completed.
Cion’s goal with such collaborative projects was to pull people out of the isolation of illness and into community, and to celebrate and embrace the unknown.