The arts take center stage to relieve stress, support patients and staff
By Carolyn Kimmel
When the going gets tough, the tough – and all of us – need the arts!
So says Claire de Boer, the founding director of Center Stage Arts in Health, which provides arts programming to nourish well-being throughout the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and Penn State College of Medicine community.
“The arts fill a gap like none other can to uplift, cheer and relax in a non-therapeutic setting,” said de Boer, who is also director of the Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine in the Department of Humanities, which develops programs and research that cultivate empathy and compassion in health care. “The arts can positively address emotions and our well-being, which is important because emotional health and physical health are tied together holistically.”
Especially during the COVID-19 upheaval – which finds patients restricted from visitors and each other, and staff coping and adapting on a daily basis – emotions are accelerated, de Boer said.
“People are feeling vulnerable, sensitive and stressed. They’re dealing with emotions that need a little TLC,” she said. “The arts are a way of saying ‘I acknowledge your thoughts and emotions,’ ‘I love you,’ ‘Here’s something beautiful I made for you.’”
To help everyone cope a little better, Center Stage, along with the Doctors Kienle Center and the Department of Humanities at the College of Medicine, initiated a cache of creative support that includes musical greetings, phone calls, staff support sessions, inspirational driveway art signs, art kits and more.
“We really value human, in-person connection, but that’s very limited now,” de Boer said. For example, the 40 different musicians who perform in different lobbies of the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center are silenced right now.
Without delay, Center Stage musicians adapted and, in a combined effort with College of Medicine students, created Musical Greetings, a variety of virtual performances to bring joy to hospital patients.
Monica Chincharick, of Ramey, Pa., was all smiles as she sang along with “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” as it played on an iPad in her room at Penn State Cancer Institute.
“It’s so beautiful, I could cry,” Chincharick said. “The only thing that would have made it better would be if I had photos of my family on my table while I watched them.”
Through the Phone-A-Friend program, a joint effort with the Doctors Kienle Center, College of Medicine students offer to video chat or call patients in the hospital to provide a listening ear.
“It was great to have this personal interaction,” said patient Maurice Brown, of Harrisburg, after chatting with Rahul Gupta, a fourth-year medical student, from his room. “Rahul was really easy to talk with and personable.”
Recognizing the benefits of processing stressful situations in real time, the Doctors Kienle Center, in partnership with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, is offering WeCare, a twice weekly group discussion sessions via Zoom for health care teams working with COVID unit patients. It provides a safe space to talk about challenges and support one another.
“It was a welcoming space to share my feelings and to hear what others thought as well,” said one doctor caring for COVID patients and dealing with personal anxiety about the implications of the virus to family, work and society. “Through this sharing, I realized how similar we are, and that brought a new sense of calmness. Without this program, I would have continued to have more anxiety and no space to share my thoughts. It definitely improved my well-being.”
Center Stage Art Therapist Alexis Lombardo is offering therapeutic art activities that focus on relaxation, mindfulness, creativity and expression during the weekly scheduled Staff Retreat Zone. She also continues to use art modalities on-site in Penn State Children’s Hospital and Penn State Cancer Institute to improve psychological, developmental, physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual well-being.
The connection between arts and health isn’t new – professionalizing the field is, de Boer said. She serves as founding board president of the National Organization for Arts in Health, a catalyst to advance and advocate for the impact of arts on health.
“We enhance, we don’t replace,” de Boer said. “As we become increasingly technological, there’s something about the arts that remind us of our humanity – our connections to each other – that can never be replaced.”
De Boer said she feels grateful for the emphasis that the College of Medicine gives to the humanities and the way the entire Kienle and Center Stage team came together to adapt quickly during the early days of the pandemic.
“That’s because we so believe in the power of the arts and human connection to help to heal,” she said.
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