When I worked in the Arts in Medicine program at Shands in Gainesville, Florida, I collected so many wonderful and inspiring stories from patients. They shared wishes, dreams, real-life, and more. I learned so much from each encounter and these stories stay with me. They are keepers.
In 1997, I worked for many months with a girl, a young woman really as she was quite mature for her fourteen years. At one point she had to spend time in in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, and I had permission to work with her there. The following entry is from the reflections that I wrote after the encounter in PICU.
Bearing gifts of origami birds and crayon-colored butterflies, I cautiously enter the PICU. I watch as a young woman, hooked up to more than a dozen IV lines and monitoring attachments, spits up blood while her mother, not more than twenty-eight herself, holds the girl's hand and wipes her mouth with a wet washcloth. I watch as the mother anticipates her daughter's expectoration and swiftly removes her oxygen mask to hold the hospital-issue plastic tray under her chin. I see the catheter line perched beneath the sterile white sheets and the standard light yellow hospital blankets.
I think about my meager offerings. Pieces of paper folded into birds and frogs. Poems and and stories and mythical animals made out of Fimo clay. And of course, genuinely kind words about the girl’s insightful writing. Her mother is proud.
As an Artist in Residence with the Shands Arts in Medicine program at the University of Florida I try to bring the healing gifts of creative expression to patients. I try to help them reach deep within and find a part of them that has not been torn apart their disease and by the attempt at cures. By her chronological age, this patient is considered a child, but she is fact a wise young woman, poised and deep, despite (or perhaps because of) her illness
Past the medical gadgetry and life-support systems, I see something else. I see life and I think about Theodore Roszak, a journalist and author who in The Voice of the Earth wrote that we as a society must begin: “…to see the needs of the planet and the person as a continuum.”
I had just read those words, and somehow looking at all the chemicals being pumped into the young healthy-looking body (yes, the paradox: some seem to arrive healthy and leave decimated) makes me realize that we are criminally ignorant about the source of our healing and the source of our illness.
We ignore the earth as the foundation for our well-being, and we replace it’s regenerative powers with horrors that may someday be labeled worse than medieval. We are incapable of connecting with the rhythm of life (and death) of this planet. We fancy ourselves better than it, and we devise ways to overcome its threat, its strength, and its superiority. I have no illusion that we tame it. I have only to watch the ravaged little bodies on the pediatric units to know that the paltry attempts at "fixing" nature amount to a painful insanity that denies the truth about us and the earth.
We have forgotten, as Roszak writes, that “all medicine was in times past understood to be ‘holistic’ — a healing of body. mind, and soul …”
While the holistic approach to healthcare is making strides into mainstream medicine, I see another avenue that is perhaps swifter and less threatening: the creative arts. Helping people express themselves through art — visual, performing, literary — offers a connection to our nature, our nature that springs from the womb of the earth, where I believe we will ultimately find a healing power greater than the alchemy dreamed up in scientific laboratories. The act of expression is an act of creation, and every act of creation is healing.
I leave the hospital. I walk out into the cool night air and look back at the concrete structure. I see the cement and the asphalt and the futuristic ventilation system — and the windows that do not open. I see how we seal ourselves from the life that surrounds us, the life that struggles to survive against our efforts to subdue its chaotic lust for expression.
I cry about the young woman I have just visited. I wish for her to dance in the moonlight and touch the flowers that grow within her heart. I wish for the doctors and the nurses and researchers to reach within their souls and find the earth-centered creative spirit that nurtures life. I wish them to dance down the halls, draw pictures on their patients charts, and sit with the sick and dying telling stories and listening: listening to the cycle of life and death. It's not about living: it's about being and being there for each other. It's about expressing the deep life within us, even if that expression only lasts a moment in time.