Friday, August 17, 2007

Art reduces hospital stress

When artist Gillian Field began working on an arts project in the Renal Dialysis unit of Tallaght Hospital as part of a research programme, she wasn't sure if there was room and energy enough for art in the ward.

dialysisartvisit6.jpg"I had previously been used to working in the Age Related Health Care unit where patients were fully mobile," she says in a just published report on the initiative. "In the Dialysis Unit patients are all in beds, connected up to the dialysis machines with limited mobility."

Her concerns were shared by the patients in the project, though their anxieties related more to worries that they might have to make a long-term commitment.

"But with a bit of reassurance people understood they were free to come and go as they pleased, and with time we got ourselves up and running."

Gillian's research in the Dialysis Unit, under the hospital's Arts Office programme which manages similar activities by a total of 15 artists across the campus, was funded by the Punchestown Kidney Research Fund.

The fund was founded by Kilcullen businessman James Nolan, himself the recipient two decades ago of a kidney donated by his sister Catherine. Since then he has tirelessly promoted the need for organ donation, and helped raise close to a million euros for the charity best known by a special race included in the annual Punchestown Festival race meeting every spring.

The fund has also bought a holiday home in Tralee for use by dialysis patients, with the cooperation of the local hospital's Dialysis Unit.

Gillian Field's report, 'The Benefit of Therapeutic Art Sessions for Patients in a Renal Dialysis Unit', includes comprehensive recommendations for other hospitals considering a similar programme.

When she began work in the unit last September, Gillian was picking up on a similar pilot programme which had taken place between 2003-2005.

"There were only two patients from then who were still painting consistently," she recalls. "It took time to settle in and to build a relationship with them first, and then encourage other people and newcomers to take part in the art."

Compared to her work in the Age Related unit Gillian was struck by a number of issues, such as the diversity in age of people undergoing dialysis. And the limited space in the ward for the hospital Art Trolley as well as the need for more one-to-one tuition simply because the participants were bedbound for the duration of their treatment.

"You will often hear the machines going off and making a loud beeping sound ... it took me a while to adjust to all these events as part of normal life on the Dialysis Unit."


Gillian's own expertise relates to Art Therapy, Painting and Drawing. She worked with volunteer artists Michelle Phelan and Ginni Mills, who brought to the project their own backgrounds in Sculpture and Mixed Media.

They quickly realised that they needed artistic activities which would not just suit everybody who wanted to be involved, but also not be too demanding or challenging and thus deter potential participants.

"Together we came up with the idea of designing colourful glass candleholders ... a simple activity, but one that had a clear beginning, middle and end. It still required a good level of application, concentration and creative flair."

In all, eight people in the Wednesday morning sessions participated. And staff expressed interest. Gillian reports that it made the hospital a 'more social experience', helped the sense of community spirit, and made the ward a 'hive of activity' for those two hours every mid-week.

The success of the initiative prompted a follow-up that involved the patients painting acrylic bird cutouts destined to be hung in the hospital canteen. It was very successful, and at the request of the nurses the team also held a number of sessions for staff. The result was some 150 'birds' hanging from the steel trusses holding up the canteen roof.


"The effect is like a rainbow of colour above your head," Gillian says. "The installation also has a very calming effect ... I think it will prove to be a very good thing for reducing stress levels of staff and visitors to the hospital."

Thanks to a donation from a former patient, a new project currently under development will involve inspiration from medical diagrams of sections of kidneys to produce 'abstract moody landscapes' which will be hung in various wards in the hospital.

"Our starting point was the idea of creating something beautiful and positive out of the images of the kidneys, which is something that may often be seen as having negative associations for patients ... in a sense we wanted to create light out of darkness."

A current project involves the participating patients making masks based on the Italian 'Commedia dell'arte', best known in the form of those used in the Venetian Carnival. The initiative was suggested by volunteer artist Ginni Mills, and is considered a very suitable activity for dialysis patients because it is a process that can be developed from week to week.

dialysisartvisit7.jpgThe hospital's Arts Officer Hilary Moss has no doubt about the positive role art has played across the Tallaght campus. Apart from direct artistic input, the programme -- established in 2003 by the hospital itself and receiving no HSE funding of any kind -- has included a first in Ireland music residency by the Irish Chamber Orchestra as well as a visit from the Maryland Youth Choir.

Juggling, puppet-making, poetry, and visual arts have also been included for the benefit of both patients and visitors. And a number of design projects have resulted in significant improvements to the hospital infrastructure itself -- such as a suitably decorated Day Ward for children and a more appropriate waiting area for visitors to terminally ill patients.

"We all live normally with the arts as part of our daily existence," Hilary says. "But traditionally when we come into a hospital we have to go through the experience without art."

She believes that apart from the aesthetic contribution, Art Therapy can also help by encouraging patients to talk among themselves about the medical issues which bring them to the hospital.

The Tallaght programme has also brought in the local community. Two major exhibitions were held in the hospital on a permanent gallery space in 'Hospital Street'. These involved works by photographer Gerry O'Dwyer and St Basil's Travelling Community.

An evaluation of the benefit of live music for patients, 'A Cure for the Soul?', has also been published as a report.

Brian Byrne.

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