Healing Arts

Healing Arts

Modern medicine can do wonders for the chronically and seriously ill—providing radiation and chemotherapy for cancer patients, for example.

But the powers of science don’t always address the internal stresses that often accompany major illnesses.

That’s where the Healing Arts program can come in, says Kristen Ward, program coordinator. “Artistic activity helps our patients express their thoughts and emotions. It can lower their stress and anxiety, and leave them feeling relaxed, calmer and happier.” About 65% of hospitals nationwide use similar programs.

Ward and her colleague Virginia Abbott began a simple program at St. Luke’s several years ago, through a grant from the Livestrong Foundation. But after the funding ended, the pair still offered about five hours of programming weekly.

Last year, St. Luke’s accepted Ward’s proposal for expanding and formalizing the program; it now offers up to 20 hours per week across the Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton campuses.

It’s aimed mainly at chemo patients, who spend four to six tedious hours at each treatment session.

Ward is artist-in-residence at the Anderson campus, while Abbott is at the Allentown and Bethlehem facilities. They visit the outpatient infusion centers or patients in bed with “Erica’s Art Carts” (see sidebar) that enable patients to express themselves through adult coloring, acrylic and watercolor paints, origami, jewelry making, collage, even creating birdhouses and picture frames. The carts include photo albums of completed projects, helping patients visualize the goal.

“I start by introducing myself and explaining the program,” Ward says. “Sometimes they’re reluctant to take part, but my enthusiasm helps convince them.”

Each person chooses his or her project, unlike “painting parties” where everyone makes exactly the same thing. The budding artists can become so engrossed in their work that the real world practically vanishes. She’s seen patients who were unaware of the loud, persistent ringing sound triggered by an obstruction in their IV lines.

Distraction from illness is just part of the process. “Creating art helps them express their thoughts and emotions,” Ward said. “And they communicate freely with me. I may start off talking to them about what color they’d like in their pendant and then talk about how their child is dealing with their cancer diagnosis or their wig.”

Serious illness can be debilitating on its own; add the rigors of chemotherapy, and some patients may be too listless to participate. In such cases, Abbott can put her own spin on the process. During her “art serenades,” she’ll create a painting based on a patient’s descriptions and other input. “I try to let them understand that it’s collaboration. It’s their artwork, I’m just the one doing it,” Abbott said.

Ward regularly offers a popular project—creating abstract glass pendants, in collaboration with Lee B. Riley, M.D., Network Chairman of Oncology and the Director of Surgical Research—Bethlehem Campus, and an artist in his own right. For years, Riley has crafted hundreds of glass pendants for his own cancer patients—so bringing the concept to the infusion centers was a natural fit.

“People say, ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I can’t paint,’ but they can pick out colors of glass they like and put them together in an abstract way,” Riley said.

The process is simple. Patients select bits of colored dichroic glass (which reflects different colors at different viewing angles) and arrange them, mosaic style, on a special glass base. Riley fires the pieces at home; Ward adds the necessary hardware; and each patient has a special memento.

George Young, a longshoreman and volunteer firefighter from Franklin Township, N.J., wasn’t too excited about making a pendant—until he saw the final result.

“When I got it back I was really blown away by how good it looked. I said, ‘Holy cow, this is beautiful,’” he said. “Honestly, I’ll be wearing this for the rest of my life.”

Riley isn’t surprised by Young’s reaction. “I think there’s a basic human need to express oneself, to tell one’s story,” he said. “The program helps patients express themselves in a visual way.”

Healing Arts is gradually expanding into the St. Luke’s Baby and Me Support Center and the inpatient pediatric department at St. Luke’s Bethlehem Campus. Volunteers are always welcome, as are donations of cash or art materials.

The Arts in Health program is just part of St. Luke’s efforts to harness the healing power of art. “It really reflects St. Luke’s commitment to treating the whole patient,” Ward said.


Former cancer patient Erica Curtis took a great deal of comfort in creating jewelry during her treatment at St. Luke’s. Erica lost her two-year fight in May 2018 at the age of 40, and one of the pendants Erica made is among her mother’s treasured remembrances. “Erica was very creative,” Ward said, “and the pendant meant so much to her.”

To honor her memory, and in gratitude to the St. Luke’s team, the Curtis family purchased three art carts, loaded with creative materials and adorned with Erica’s picture. The carts are essentially art rooms on wheels, and enable other patients to express themselves creatively. More recently, other donations covered the purchase of three additional carts. The program now reaches the Anderson, Bethlehem, Allentown, Quakertown, Warren, and Monroe campuses.

Volunteers are welcomed at all campuses, Ward said, adding that you needn’t be an artist to help out. “We’re looking for enthusiastic, creative people,” she said. “We will train you to work with our patients and to use the cart’s materials.” Find more information at sluhn.org/volunteernow under the “Apply Now!” heading. And be sure to specify that you wish to be a healing arts volunteer in infusion centers.

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