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Healthcare Workers Turn to the Arts to Heal

Medicine and medical procedures can fight the physical effects of disease. But a patient’s spiritual and mental well-being also can play an important role in recovery. A group of North Texas healthcare professionals recently met to discuss how the arts can aid the healing process. KERA’s Stephen Becker reports:

KERA Radio story:

The diagnosis came in 2008.

Karla Morton’s doctor called to say she had cancer just as Morton returned home from the pound with a new family dog. What happened next moved her to write a poem, called “I Will Not Hide.” It begins:

“The mammogram was Tuesday

The biopsy Wednesday

I got the phone call Thursday.

I told the dog, fresh from the pound.

He crawled into my lap,

reminding me in hound that he was terminal just yesterday.

Reminding me miracles happen.”

Morton is the Texas State Poet Laureate for 2010. She read her poem at a recent symposium called “Healing in the Arts” put on by the Attending Clergy Association of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospitals.

MORTON: “Sometimes when you have these emotions and you want to put your fist through the wall, I tell, people, ‘Put it on the paper. The paper can take it. The paper can always take it.’”

Healing is not the same as curing.

As one doctor said, “healing is not the absence of disease.” Rather, it’s the process of mental and spiritual recovery from an illness. And it’s a process that presenters at the event said the arts can have a profound affect on.

Dr. Betty Jo Troeger is a pioneer in the world of art therapy.

TROEGER: “If you’re overcome by an emotion like anger or fear, and it makes you unable to respond, you need to find ways to open that emotion up so you can talk about it. You’re taking it outside of yourself and you’re objectifying it when you put it into art form.

In a classroom at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Troeger demonstrated to nurses and clergy members how patients use famous paintings to tap into their emotions. These types of exercises are especially helpful to young patients.

TROEGER: “When I first started working with children with physical disabilities and their mobility was impaired – they couldn’t run or play or romp about – they used art materials and it gave them a chance to be active participants instead of passive observers of the life experience.”

But patients aren’t the only ones who need healing. Healthcare workers can easily burn out from carrying their patients’ problems around with them. Sometimes, cynicism creeps in as a self-preservation tool.

Dr. Robert Schwab, an administrator with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospitals, says art can be a valuable tool in gaining empathy. He read Steinbeck’s stories of the down-and-out to better understand low-income patients at hospitals where he’s worked.

SCHWAB: “The real key to me of healing people and treating them is understanding what it’s like to be them. So empathy is really important, and I think art can teach us empathy because artists are able to let us know what it’s like to be someone very different from ourselves.”

Schwab’s belief in the healing power in the arts has led him to a side career writing songs that he performs at medical conferences around the country. One of his songs has the lyrics:

“There’s more than blood and muscle deep in their hearts/And if you can learn to listen and hear/The truth becomes clear/The data you really need’s in their words and not in their charts.”

Doctors use science to determine how to physically care for their patients. But as Dr. Troeger, the art therapist, says, we also need to care for our emotions. That’s where the arts find their place at the bedside.

TROEGER: “I don’t know that I think science and arts are that deeply divided. The way we process the information is, but it all links together to the whole human of mind, body and spirit. And I think we may be closer together than we suspect.”

Click the audio player below to hear Karla Morton read her poem “I Will Not Hide”: