Ksuan Anderson carefully glues a shiny, gold pipe cleaner around the edge of the letter "S". He's already filled an entire page with block letters spelling out his name, and colored each one with crayons. While such creative activity could take place at any school's arts room, it's actually occurring in the waiting room at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center's (CPMC) pediatric neurology clinic.
Ksuan is 9 years old, but the Manhattan boy already has spent a significant portion of his life in waiting rooms. Diagnosed at birth with sickle cell anemia, he's been hospitalized 25 times and is a frequent visitor to CPMC. As he concentrates on his creation, other children in the waiting room work on their own projects. And while Ksuan and the others are having fun, this program is more than just a way for children to kill time between doctor visits.
"I believe art is healing," says Dr. Wilma Siegel, a retired oncologist, formerly with Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein Medical College, and now a member of the Campus Community Committee (CCC) of CPMC's Health Sciences Advisory Council. "Art can be a major force in helping individuals get through stress, and I felt it was something we needed in the medical setting."
Dr. Siegel has been the driving force behind Wilma's Studio, a new arts program that began this summer at CPMC, which brings artists to the hospital several times a month to host crafts programs for children. The effort is sponsored by CCC and has received support from the Health Sciences Administration, the CCC, and the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, which champions innovative medical education programs that add a human element to the field.
Dr. Sandra Gold, executive vice president of the Gold Foundation, had seen Dr. Siegel's portraits in Florida and had asked the retired oncologist to bring the arts into the Columbia environment.
Susan Taylor, senior development officer at the Columbia University Health Sciences Development Office, says the CCC has coordinated this program as part of its mission to improve the quality of life at the medical center. Past projects included bringing health to the community and offering stress-relieving techniques to the faculty and staff through "Take Time for Health Days," and the improvement of campus green spaces. CCC is chaired by Advisory Council member Ponchitta Pierce.
"Having children do arts and crafts in this program is like bringing joy, and joy can trigger feelings that are needed in order to heal," says Cassandra Saulter, the New York-based artist-in-residence who works with children in the clinic and directs the program. "The hospital can be a gloomy setting, but art can take that gloominess away." The kids enjoy the projects but they also improve their hand-eye coordination and visual responsiveness. More importantly, proponents say the work sparks creative energy, which is therapeutic.
Ms. Saulter is crafting Wilma's Studio after two programs at Florida hospitals that Dr. Siegel developed. After retiring in 1991, Dr. Siegel began painting portraits. In one project, she interviewed AIDS patients and incorporated personal information into their portraits. Dr. Siegel discovered that being part of the artistic process was therapeutic to the patients and prompted her to start programs where the patients themselves could work on craft projects.
Through her work with AIDS patients, Dr. Siegel became involved with the pediatric AIDS clinic at Broward County General Medical Center, in Florida, and helped launch an arts program there called Operation Sunflower. Initially, one artist brought arts and crafts materials once a week for the children to use in the waiting room; now there are enough artists and volunteers to support arts projects almost every weekday, and some Saturdays. A similar program at the Sylvester Center in Broward County General Medical Center brings art projects to children and adult patients who spend several hours attached to an intravenous drip in the extended chemotherapy treatment center.
Dr. Siegel and Ms. Saulter hope to see Wilma's Studio at CPMC expand. Ms. Saulter currently comes to the hospital only on Tuesday afternoons, but would like to have enough funding to support more days and to train other artists to bring artistic programs into other parts of the hospital. Ms. Taylor said these requests are under consideration.
"It is our goal to have this program replicated in a number of outpatient settings throughout the medical center," Ms. Taylor says. A later phase of the program could bring the same healing elements of art therapy to the bedside. "This would be particularly beneficial for patients whose treatments require longer hospitalizations, such as in the transplantation service," Ms. Taylor says. Identifying appropriate sources of funding will be a critical step before this can happen.
"It's good to see a program like this," says Nikia Anderson, Ksuan's mother. As a frequent visitor to various hospital clinics, she says it can be difficult for children to sit and wait, especially with the prospect of a shot in the near future. "This helps parents and it helps kids, because it takes their mind off their worries," she says. "It's kind of a therapy for them."