Tampa Bay Hospitals Engage Arts In Healing

Reagan Kelly, 5, gave a big smile as Abby Paterson, a junior at the University of Tampa, painted a rainbow of pink, yellow, green and blue stripes on the little girl's palm, perfect for creating a multicolored unicorn from her handprint.

"Reagan has a great imagination and she's having a lot of fun,'' says her dad, Jonathan. "It's also nice for her to get out of her room.''

A patient at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital, Reagan joined in the fun as a half-dozen children and parents turned their handprints into butterflies, elephants, turtles, flamingos and even inch worms, part of an art project that now hangs in one of the new playrooms at the hospital.

The UT students were there as part of a class taught by Heather Spooner, an adjunct professor for the university’s Pre-Professional Concentration in Art Therapy.

"For me personally, making art was therapeutic and when I learned this was a career path, I fell in love with the idea,'' says Spooner, who has a master's degree in art therapy and, in addition to teaching students, contracts with the hospital to bring art to patients three mornings a week either in a group setting or one-on-one at the bedside. 

"Art is a way for young children to visually express themselves when they don't have the vocabulary to do so,'' says Spooner. "We can work on many goals; it can be pain management or just coping with the social changes that illness brings.''

In addition to art therapy with University of Tampa students, pediatric patients at the hospital can take part in weekly lobby activities sponsored by the child life department. Often there's a hands-on creative project scheduled. But sometimes they're entertained with music.

"Mr. Tommy, who was the lead guitarist for the rock band Eddy Money, is a frequent visitor,'' says Kelly Outlaw, Child Life supervisor at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital.

"We have kids who may be here just a few days, but others might be in the hospital for several months,'' says Outlaw. "The hospital can be intimidating. The kids may be struggling with being here. Activities like art and music help with normalization of their environment. It's a safe outlet.''

St. Joseph's Hospital is just one of several healthcare organizations in the Tampa Bay region that bring the creative arts to both children and adults undergoing medical treatment.

For her 30th birthday last August, Danielle Lanier wasn't looking for presents. Instead, she asked friends and colleagues to support a benefit concert she organized at a popular Tampa venue. Her goal? To raise money to pay for an art and music therapy program at the Children's Cancer Center, where she is director of programs and family services. 

Last year she did something similar, with the money raised going toward the purchase of drums, guitars, tambourines and other instruments for the cancer center's music room.

"Music and art are very dear to me; I'm an artist myself and my parents were musicians,'' says Lanier. "My master's thesis for grad school was on the effect of music therapy and how it helps children in the hospital.''

The nonprofit Children's Cancer Center doesn't provide medical treatment. Instead, it provides emotional, educational and financial support to families of children with cancer and chronic blood disorders. Now thanks to Lanier's fundraising efforts and matching funds provided by the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, art and music therapy will be offered as well.

In January, the Cancer Center hired an art therapist and a music therapist to work with children, teens and parents as an added component to the ongoing family programs. The specialists will also offer individual one-on-one sessions to children and parents based on referrals. "If we can secure additional funds, we would like to see this program grow,'' says Lanier. "It has so much potential to help families.''

What makes the programs so valuable? 

"When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it becomes a focus of the entire family and affects every aspect of their day,'' says Lanier. "Music and art offer a way to feel supported and to heal emotionally. The arts can help get out feelings of anger, anxiety and depression, which can contribute to the healing process.''

Cheryl Belanger is a musician and coordinator of Moffitt Cancer Center's Arts in Medicine program. Now in its 16th year, Moffitt's program has a different focus than some of the other programs in the area, says Belanger. 

"We embrace the philosophy of the expressive arts, which is offered as an inspiration or comfort, but without a goal or prescription, or even anticipating any particular results like you would with traditional art or music therapy,'' says Belanger. "We don't direct the experience unless someone asks us specifically to do that.'' 

Patients can have a one-on-one individual session at the bedside, but there is also a dedicated Arts in Medicine studio where anyone -- patients, family members, visitors or hospital staff -- can drop by for a session. (Click here for a YouTube video of a session.)

"Moffitt has a commitment to the whole person,'' says Belanger. "It is understood that our emotions, our mental well-being and our spirit need to be considered alongside medical treatment.  What we offer in our studio is a retreat and a place of comfort. That cam be especially important for family members, who may be staying at the hospital with their loved ones and need a break.''

A staff of three musicians and three visual artists offer a variety of arts experiences, anything from painting and drawing to journaling, expressive movement, dance and music. Their services are complemented by a large group of volunteers from the Tampa Bay community, many of whom donate their time for one of Moffitt's frequent lobby performances. 

In early January, a local group of hammer dulcimer players performed in the main hospital lobby. "Music is very powerful and effective in changing the hospital environment in a positive way,'' says Belanger.

Lynn Norton, director of education for the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, is another champion of the creative arts in the healthcare settings. Through the arts council, she's helped secure grants, identify artists and fund a number of local programs, from the new art and music therapy program at Children's Cancer Center to an expansion of Tampa General Hospital's programs in Integrative Medicine and Rehabilitation Services.

Arts for Health Florida is yet another initiative that the Arts Council helped organize, fund and launch. Heather Spooner serves as the organization's part-time director. She is working toward nonprofit 501c3 status for the organization, which plays a statewide advocacy role and serves as a resource for people or groups "interested in the ability of the arts to enhance health and well-being.'' 

Arts for Health Florida is currently developing a database of individuals, organizations and groups that support arts and health. In January, the organization co-sponsored a discussion at the University of Tampa's Scarfone/Hartley Gallery titled, "Art for the Brain's Sake: Neuroscience & the Power of Art.''

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, FL, who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.