Humanizing Healthcare Through Art

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by David C. Barnett

One old stereotype of an artist is someone working alone in a garret, cut off from society.  In more recent years, a different image is emerging, one that promotes art as a tool for social connection.  A new program embeds Northeast Ohio art students in area healthcare facilities, and benefits both patient and artist.

An IV line, coursing with blood, runs from Harvey Woods’ arm to a dialysis machine in a Cleveland Clinic facility on the city’s east side.  Over the next five hours, the apparatus will clean Woods’ blood supply, a function that his kidneys can’t handle anymore.  It’s not a great way to spend a day.  

"It’s boring, it’s uncomfortable," says Woods.

Over 350,000 patients across the country endure kidney dialysis up to 15 hours a week with few distractions to help pass the time.  For Woods, that's often watching movies or playing  a lot of Suduko.

And then came Meghan Sweeney. For three weeks, she sat by his side, closely observing the patient and recording her observations on a pad of paper.  But, instead of noting blood pressure or pulse, Sweeney sketched pictures of Woods’ face

"She came every Tuesday," he says,  "and she sat with me for about two to three hours, and we actually got into a conversation about ourselves, and life and dialysis.  And while we were talking, she would sit there and draw my portrait."

Such portraits are part of an experimental life drawing class at the Cleveland Institute of Art that matches students with Clinic patients.  Art professor Barbara Chira supervises the program, called “Drawn to Care”.  She says it’s part of a national movement.

"Since the 80s, we’ve really seen an increase in this thing called socially engaged art and design.  Healthcare is a big part of that."

The idea is for the student to come out of the studio and develop a more personal connection with his or her subject, and use that insight to create a more intimate portrait. Cleveland Clinic Nurse Practitioner Ruth Mundy says the patient gets some distraction from the boredom of dialysis, and comes away feeling that someone recognized them as a human being.

"Dialysis is not a life I would wish for anybody," she says.   "These patients that come in here, they have to take time out of their week, their lives, to come in here and get this treatment.  Now, all of the sudden, they’re not forgotten; somebody can see them." 

She adds, the program has proven to be very popular.

"We actually had an overwhelming response," she says,  "and I’m hoping that this can continue, because we actually had more patients than we had students to be able to get their pictures drawn." 

Some of those pictures were on display at a recent exhibition at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Meghan Sweeney says the one-on-one drawing experience was a lot better than a typical life drawing class, which generally features a silent model, sitting in the middle of a classroom, surrounded by sketching students.

"I always find myself wondering, like, things about them," she says.  "I wonder where they’re from?  And, with this, you actually get to connect with the person.  There’s a whole cache of memories that come up when you look at the portrait --- there’s a history here." 

Part of Sweeney’s history from this past semester sneaks up behind her at the exhibition.

She smiles. "It’s so good to see you!"

"How are you, Meghan?"

Ron Kisner was one of Sweeney’s subjects.  He’s all dressed-up in a suit and tie for the opening --- a far cry from the picture of the guy hooked up to plastic tubes running into a dialysis machine that sits in the display case.  Kisner told Sweeney he wanted people to see what the procedure looks like, so that they can better understand it. He inspects the image, and a serious look comes across his face. 

"I think you did a good job.  You made it realistic."

Her portrait of Harvey Woods is also in the exhibition.  He says the thought of someone coming into the dialysis center and drawing a portrait of him was not appealing, at first.  But, after he got to know Meghan Sweeney, he changed his mind.

"It makes me feel a bit important that I would have my picture drawn.  I know it’s not taking a picture of me in my best light, but I feel pretty good about it."

He still has to face the tedium of those 15 hours a week on the dialysis machine, but now he has that picture, and the memories of the art student who took the time to get to know him, and put it on paper for others to see.  

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