Power of Art

The following is a letter that our art therapists received from the Co-Chair of the Shared Nursing Leadership team at Children’s National Medical Center, Danielle Shenk:

Dear Art therapy, 

I wanted to thank you all for the wonderful work you do at CNMC. You are an incredibly professional, kind, patient, and committed group of ladies. Thank you for all the time and energy you put into your work. Three years ago I met a wonderful patient at CNMC who spent many hours doing small art projects through the course of her treatment. Since she passed, I was inspired to be an oncology pediatric nurse who incorporates lots of art into my nursing care. Art has so positively affected so many children through treatment and long hospital stays. I’ve loved seeing first hand so many patients light up because of their art projects. I am so grateful for each of your roles at CNMC. You all have made an incredible impact through art. I am especially grateful for all the times you have grabbed countless art supplies for my patients and my room decoration projects, for your help with BMT discharge celebration parties, and for your support, ideas, and encouragement with the BMT Family Tree. Thanks for so kindly supporting the nursing staff. Thanks for helping me fulfill my art and oncology nursing dreams. 

Danielle Shenk, RN II

Co-Chair Shared Nursing Leadership 

In a very fundamental way, creative work is tied to our sense of being vital, alive and healthy. Physical illness brings suffering not only in the body, but also in the mind and spirit. Undergoing medical tests and procedures can be dehumanizing, especially for children, who may not be able to understand the healing intent behind the scans, needles and medicines.

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Art Therapy allows young patients to do creative work within the limitations imposed by their illness, restoring a sense of self and wholeness. Getting well is hard work, and recovery may take a long time. Experiencing oneself as a creator within the treatment setting changes how young patients see themselves: they become active partners in the work of getting well, not just passive patients who can only take medicine and wait.

A 12-year-old girl, one year out from a bone marrow transplant, came to our clinic for long-term follow-up.  She was asked to complete a bridge drawing, an assessment which can be very useful in illustrating how patients view their treatment experience.  When the girl started her drawing, she was very quiet and somewhat withdrawn.  She drew herself on the bridge, running to catch up with two friends on the other side. The two friends looked identical, engaged in a secret conversation with each other, whereas the girl had different hair and a different appearance from these two friends.  It was evident that this young girl struggled with feelings of isolation and being left out, most likely because her illness and subsequent transplant prevented her from participating in normal activities with her peers.  As she continued drawing, she showed more energy, adding color and hopeful details like birds, sunshine and flowers.  At the end, she drew the three friends, all reunited in a boat under the bridge saying, “We are all canoeing together at camp!”  Through the process of art-making, she was able to express feelings of sadness and exclusion, but also used the drawing to change her outlook on the future – to that of a normal girl, having fun with her friends.