The Healing Arts

Artists in residence soothe patients’ souls as they recover at Eisenhower Medical Center.



The moment is painted surreal: A woman stands alone, in a thin gown, on a third-floor balcony. Her eyes close as she draws a deep breath and starts to sing the words to “Amazing Grace.” Her powerful voice accompanies the harpist playing in the lobby below. In a healthful way. Her voice fills the antiseptic space and those within earshot hear it as operatic and beautiful. Momentarily, the hospital is forgotten. The musical infection spreads.

At Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, the performance occurred during one of the regular “concerts” held as part of Eisenhower’s revolutionary Art in Healthcare program. Moments like this are not isolated, according to harpist Jeannette Debonne, who has on more than one occasion witnessed firsthand the healing power of her art.

Eisenhower has made artists like Debonne an integral part of its healthcare system. The program is in its second year, and Debonne is its first artist in residence.

Mary Walton, the program’s director, enlisted Debonne. “I was lucky to meet Jeannette,” Walton says. “She is a professional artist, a printmaker, a sketch artist, a musician, and has an amazing presence about her.”

Not any artist is cut out for Debonne’s job. “You can’t bring just anybody in,” she explains. “Artists must have qualities that allow them to be open to where the patient is; so their listening skills, their intuitiveness is very important.”

Debonne has studied the effects of sound — particularly the harp — on people who are ill and is not surprised by the revival of its use in healing. Debonne has traced harp music in treating the ill to the Middle Ages, back to a time when monks in France played specially selected music for the dying. “I’ve always wanted to use the harp for something more than entertainment because in my own life it has had a very healing effect psychologically,” Debonne says. “It’s very calming and relaxing — it has a spiritual quality to it.”

Under Walton’s guidance, the program has produced visible results. It adds to growing research supporting the use of art in healthcare management.

Eisenhower now boasts three artists in residence and one volunteer artist in residence, as well as a dozen musicians working in different capacities. It has, in many respects, become a model of how programs like this should be run.

Dr. David Kaminsky, medical director of Eisenhower’s pathology department, was the catalyst for the program. The producer of the award-winning documentary film on the subject, Paint Me a Future, Kaminsky is a powerful advocate for the use of the arts in the healing process.

“This isn’t hocus-pocus,” he says. “Evidence-based medicine can demonstrate that the arts have a very positive outcome on the healing process.” Kaminsky cites studies showing that patients who are engaged in the arts have a reduced length of stay in the hospital and increased compliance with their therapy. It has been demonstrated that when they are in fact terminal patients, it gives them a sense of legacy — of leaving behind something of themselves for others. Other positive benefits include a reduced need for pain medications and a much more positive visualization about recovery. Kaminsky puts it simply, “Art heals the soul as the body recovers from disease.”

Arts in Healthcare at Eisenhower encompasses more than lobby or bedside concerts; arts, crafts, dance, song — everything comes into play. “It’s about every possible way we can introduce the arts and humanities into the hospital setting,” Walton says. This includes the aesthetics of the healing environment; the hospital’s new cancer center is only one of the places where you can see this concept applied. An antithesis to the usual starkness of medical institutions, the center’s entrance is beautifully serene, marked by a curved stone wall and gently flowing water. In other places, art graces cheerfully colored hospital walls, murals add vitality, and artist-inspired rainbows give gardens new life.

Patients are the main focus of Arts in Healthcare, but the program also addresses the mental well-being of the hospital staff. Debonne, along with visual artist Diane Mathias, visits the various hospital floors once a week holding “stress buster” workshops. Walton says this is one way the program helps staff cope with the high levels of stress and anxiety common to healthcare professionals.

“We set up a table and have an art project that can be completed in a very short time because everybody is very busy,” Debonne explains. Live music, cookies, fruit, and a massage therapist are often part of these stress busters. The artist says the events provide a welcome relief for staff that sometimes only has seconds to participate. She adds, “Once you’ve worked in a hospital, your respect for nurses and doctors increases.” Walton says, “What we really do is aid and support them in their job.”

In the beginning, there was some resistance to this new program. However, Kaminsky says, “With each individual activity we’ve done, I think the response has been so fantastic that it builds a growing confidence in what the arts can do.”

Typically, this seems to be the case around the country as oncology centers develop programs utilizing the arts. Studies especially developed to measure outcomes add to the cumulative data demonstrating the positive effects of the arts on patient care.

Looking to the future, he says, “I would like to see art not be visualized as a program but as a necessary part of the culture so that there is no debate on it, there is no hesitancy on anybody’s part to participate in it or fund it — just that it becomes an intricate part of the tapestry of the culture of the hospital. I think that is everybody’s goal in arts and healthcare.”

Until then, funding for innovative programs like this remains spotty at best. Although Eisenhower has a supportive foundation for its fledgling program, both Kaminsky and Walton have engaged in independent fundraising.

Kaminsky remains undeterred: “I think the more that the program speaks for itself, the more people are going to want to contribute to it.”

Information: (760) 837-8966

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