Arts in Medicine

Arts in Medicine

In the 25 years since artists and physicians first sketched out the idea for UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine, the program has become a national model for arts in health care. Here are a few reasons why. 

By April Frawley Lacey
Photos by Jesse S. Jones
Michael Claytor, an artist in residence with Arts in Medicine at UF Health Shands Hospital sings with UF Health patient Aleisha Davis.

Michael Claytor, an artist in residence with Arts in Medicine at UF Health Shands Hospital sings with UF Health patient Aleisha Davis.

A tablet cradled in her lap, Aleisha Davis taps on the glass surface with a manicured red fingernail, scrolling through a list of songs. Finally, inspiration strikes. She glances up at musician Michael Claytor, who stands near the foot of the bed in her room, gently thrumming his guitar. “What about ‘Amazing Grace?’” she asks.

“We can do that,” he says, nodding, his back framed by a panorama of wide blue sky, treetops and the marshland of Paynes Prairie stretching out beyond the window.

Outside the door, nurses and staff members flit through the halls of Unit 8 East at UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital, busy with the day-to-day business of healing patients. But inside her room, a cocoon of music envelops Davis as her voice intertwines with Claytor’s in duet. She closes her eyes.

For just a second, she can forget why she is in the hospital for a week, away from her husband and 6-year-old son. She doesn’t think about how it’s her ninth round of chemotherapy, or that she’ll be back next month for the 10th. She doesn’t think about the tumors that are a result of the Gardner syndrome she was diagnosed with last year. For a moment, her world is a song.

“It takes my mind off why I am really there and brings me positive vibes,” says Davis of her visits from Claytor and other artists in residence from the UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine program. “It makes me feel like I am not there. I need it.”

They may come into the room armed with crayons, journals or guitar picks instead of doses of medicine and stethoscopes, but UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine’s artists in residence and art therapists have become a crucial part of healing for countless patients. And that’s just one part of how Arts in Medicine is working to transform the patient experience in Gainesville and beyond. In the 25 years since Arts in Medicine was founded at UF Health Shands Hospital, the program has become a national leader in the use of art to accentuate healing — helping patients at hospitals in Gainesville and Jacksonville, educating the next generation of arts in health leaders and conducting research that could help bring the benefits of arts in medicine to even more people.

The program is wide-ranging, from dance classes for patients and bedside art to research in the emergency room and educational collaborations in Ireland. But one thing is certain. Patients always come first.

“Our artists are part of the teams that deliver care to people,” says Tina Mullen, director of UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine. “People would be surprised to learn that artists, musicians in particular, are with patients when they are dying.” 

Amy Bucciarelli, MS ATR-BC, LMHC, Board Certified Art Therapist, helped Frank "Dylan" Dinkins make a painting for his parents. Bucciarelli works with pedatrics patients at UF Health Shands Children's Hospital.

Amy Bucciarelli, MS ATR-BC, LMHC, Board Certified Art Therapist, helped Frank “Dylan” Dinkins make a painting for his parents. Bucciarelli works with pedatrics patients at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital.

Humble beginnings

1990, Mullen had just finished her Master of Fine Arts degree in visual arts at UF when the late Melvin Rubin, M.D., then chair of ophthalmology in the College of Medicine, asked her what she thought about starting an exhibition program at the hospital. At the same time, UF pediatric oncologist John Graham-Pole, M.D., an avid supporter of creativity in medicine, was becoming interested in how artists could support patient healing.

There was a growing movement across the country in both areas — hospitals bringing in collections or art and artists working one-on-one with patients. When Mullen and Graham-Pole found each other and began talking, the Arts in Medicine program at UF Health was born.

“We started out with exhibition space in the (UF Health Davis) Cancer Pavilion. We also had two volunteer artists working in the bone marrow transplant unit. That was the start of it,” Mullen says. “When we went into the community and said ‘We are thinking about using the arts in the hospital as a way to improve patients’ lives,’ so many people wanted to help with that. At the same time leadership felt like this was the right thing for the institution. We started small, but with momentum.”

That support, from community artists and leaders, has only grown stronger throughout the years, allowing the program to achieve several crucial milestones.

One of the first major milestones was the development and installation of the healing wall in the UF Health Shands Hospital Atrium in 1994. Patients painted the tiles featured in the installation, which Mullen describes as Arts in Medicine’s first major piece.

“It set the stage for what we would do,” Mullen says. “Patient engagement became part of the fabric of our building. To this day we find people coming back. They see something they did in 1994 is still up and valued. It gives people a sense that they are valued and that their health journey means something to us.

“Ten years ago, we got a knock on the door. It was a young woman and man in scrubs. She said in 1994 she went through cancer treatment here. They were dating in high school and he came every day and they created a tile. I got a sense of exactly how important the experiences are that people have when they come to this hospital.”

Art is key to almost every aspect of facility design and planning, said Brad Pollitt, vice president for facilities development at UF Health Shands. A strategic approach is taken to decide what art should be placed throughout facilities, from the photos in patient rooms, to large installations and wayfinding materials. Facilities even include some performance spaces for Arts in Medicine artists, such as the benches in the tunnel that extends from the north campus to the south.

“I look around at other places, and they don’t have anything like we have that is consistent throughout our organization,” Pollitt says. “The new interactive wall (in the recently redesigned UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital) is a good example of the interactive environment that, without close work with Arts in Medicine, would not be possible. It sets a background and underlying cultural expectation that art is not static. It is meant to soothe, but also challenge and create an opportunity for someone to get involved and forget about their troubles.”

The program that started out as exhibition space and a couple volunteers working with patients has grown to include 18 artists in residence, several adjunct artists, three art therapists, global collaborations in places as far away as Africa and Ireland, a collection of more than 1,000 pieces of art and a countless number of patients who have been helped directly and indirectly.

“When I look at other places, I think that the commitment of our community artists and leaders is why we grew so fast,” Mullen says. “We are the largest program. I look at us now compared to where we started and I think this is incredible.”

Arts in Motion session with Parkinson's patients

Arts in Motion session with Parkinson’s patients

Growing a program

In 1999, the program made another leap forward when Arts in Medicine teamed with the College of the Arts to form the Center for Arts in Medicine. Through the center, Arts in Medicine extended its reach, offering the country’s first graduate programs and certificates in arts in medicine. Center for Arts in Medicine faculty members are also helping to validate the contribution of arts in medicine through research.

“Everything we do is interconnected,” says Jill Sonke, director of the Center for Arts in Medicine and assistant director of UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine. “We have 18 professional artists working at the bedside. We have a whole educational curriculum. We conduct research. Our faculty and staff are very much connected, each work in the clinical environment as artists or arts therapists. In turn, a number of them serve as faculty and all provide mentorship for students.”

This summer, the program received a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA, to build on a series of pilot studies that have taken place in the emergency room at UF Health Shands Hospital.

The project was inspired by a research study Sonke had read that showed how music therapy offered to children before CT scans could result in more than $2 billion in health care cost savings. Interested in quantifying how the arts could benefit UF Health patients, Sonke teamed with Adrian Tyndall, M.D., chair of the department of emergency medicine in the College of Medicine. They devised a series of studies to examine what happened when musicians performed in the UF Health Shands Hospital emergency room. The idea appealed to Tyndall, a trained pianist, but some were skeptical because of the busy pace of the ER.

“What we found was that, in fact, not only were artists tolerated in the ER, they were embraced,” Tyndall says. “We were struck by the impact on patients, staff and the musicians themselves, who were exposed to new and even more gratifying perspectives with the focused and individualized patient interactions.

“All of this really inspired us to take a more rigorous look. This is what resulted in the grant from the NEA that will focus on a future study looking at some specific measurable impacts in the ER setting.”

Typically, musicians play for receptive patients in the 29 rooms in the ER and sometimes in the unit’s rapid assessment area, says Claytor, one of the musicians who visits the ER.

“It is a much busier environment than the rest of the hospital,” he says. “The staff is on their toes. We have to be cognizant of space and when to excuse ourselves from the room. In that sense it is a lot more intense, but for patients, there is still a lot of waiting and a lot of anxiety. I have people tell me all the time it relieves their anxiety to relax and listen to music while they are there.”

Sonke received an email from an ER nurse who commented how one musician helped a family dealing with the loss of a loved one in the ER.

“The musician came in and transformed an experience of loss into a beautiful moment for the family,” she says. “The staff also felt a sense of loss, and it changed it into a meaningful experience for them.”

Tyndall and Sonke have published a set of research-validated protocols and a toolkit other programs can use to provide arts in medicine services in the ER.

Tyndall can pinpoint one key aspect he knows makes a difference — the talent of the musicians.

  “It is one thing to play in a studio or venue; it is another to do this in front of a patient and family in crisis,” he says. “We are extremely fortunate to have such a group of talented musicians. It has been a spectacular partnership.”

Arts in Motion session with Parkinson's patients

Arts in Motion session with Parkinson’s patients

The patient experience

Dylan Klempner calls the cart laden with journals, markers, pens, crayons, intricate coloring sheets, fuzzy pipe cleaners and other assorted craft supplies his “mobile inspiration station.” He wheels it through the halls of Unit 8 East at the UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital, stopping occasionally to knock on a door and peek in.

“Just about every patient I work with is hesitant initially. I don’t really listen to that first rejection, unless they are not feeling well, that’s different,” says Klempner, a writer and visual artist who also serves as an adviser and teacher with the Center for Arts in Medicine. “A lot of times, adults are shut down creatively. I usually ask what kind of things they did as a kid and build on that.

“It really comes from them. I try to be a conduit. It is not about me.”

Sometimes, when artists visit patients, art or music aren’t even on the agenda. Sometimes patients just want to talk. One of several musicians in residence, Claytor says he often gets to know patients through trying to figure out what music and songs they like. A story about a song can turn into a story about a person’s hometown or a story about life.

Aside from visits from artists to patient rooms, Arts in Medicine also offers classes in the Criser Cancer Resource Center and other locations, such as the Senior Recreation Center of Alachua County. The program also offers art therapy to certain populations of patients. In the UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, pediatricians who feel a patient might benefit from art therapy — sometimes because they are in the hospital for a long stay — call on art therapist Amy Bucciarelli.

“The artists approach patients from a humanistic perspective. Creativity facilitates wellness,” Bucciarelli says. “Their work allows me to work with patients who really need extra support. I come in with a specific focus for therapy.”

Partnering with the artists in residence is a huge asset for art therapy, Bucciarelli says. It allows her to connect patients who want to take their craft further to work with artists who are masters in their fields. For example, she once connected Klempner with a patient, Khandice Long, who was interested in writing a book of poetry. The pair ended up collaborating on a book of poetry that has since been published.

These collaborations between artist and patient can be powerful.

Klempner ended up moving to Gainesville to refocus his career and specifically work with Arts in Medicine after watching a video about the program that he had checked out at the library. In the video, he watched Sonke, a dancer, dance with a patient who could not get out of bed.

“I had never seen anything like that before and I was floored; I could not get the image out of my head,” he says. “She transformed and reimagined her art form in a way that could be used with a patient confined to a bed and helped her cope with pain. I could not believe it. That is the kind of thing I had been looking for.”

Every interaction with a patient is different, Claytor says. Sometimes they sing along, like Aleisha Davis, who loves singing gospel. Sometimes, they listen to song after song. Sometimes they want to talk. 

“It has changed my whole outlook on what it means to play music for people,” Claytor says. “When you are playing a concert for a group of people, you are not sure how it lands. It’s a lot less personal than one-on-one. You get to make a connection and hear what it brings up for them. It makes me so much more aware of what music can do for people.

“It is an honor to get to do this work.”

After singing four songs with Aleisha Davis, Claytor strolls through the hospital hall again, guitar in hand, looking for someone else who might need a song today.

He finds Odessa Daye from Jasper sitting in a chair by the window in her room. Recovering from a knee replacement surgery, Daye is worn out. But she’s open to a song.

“Do you know ‘I Will Always Love You?’ by Whitney Houston?” She asks.

Claytor smiles. “I can do the Dolly Parton version. I can’t do Whitney. I know my limits.”

She chuckles, and Claytor begins to play. She’s not a singer, but she can’t stop from singing along.

“That’s my favorite song,” she says, sighing, when Claytor finishes. “You just played my favorite song. That made my day.”