The Fine Art of Healing the Sick
Embracing the benefits of writing, music, and art
One day in March, Judy Nguyen's beeper went off at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare. A 2-year-old needed an echocardiogram, an ultrasound image of the heart. Nguyen rushed to the waiting room, where she met the patient and his family. Then she showed the toddler the tools she'd be using throughout the procedure: a guitar, a puppet, and a drum.
As one of two medical music therapists at the Florida hospital, Nguyen provides 350 to 400 music therapy sessions a month to patients. On this particular day, she sang songs like "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" as she waited with the boy and used a puppet to show him where the transducer and heart monitor would go. "I told him how he'd have to take off his shirt and show us his muscles, and about the ooey-gooey jelly we'd put on him," says Nguyen. While the technician ran the test, Nguyen strummed her guitar and the youngster played along with the drum. The result: no wiggling and squirming, but a calm patient who helped make the procedure go more smoothly.
Nguyen is part of a growing trend to incorporate music, writing, and visual art into the clinical treatment of patients. While the use of the arts in healing can be traced back centuries through religious practices, a growing body of evidence now shows that the arts do far more than simply soothe the savage breast. New clinical research is quantifying the health benefits of the arts, from pain relief to faster recoveries. The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations did its first survey of arts in 2004 and found that about 2,000 hospitals around the country offer some kind of arts programming. It's not just in the therapy realm. Medical schools now offer courses in the arts, literature, and humanities, and hospitals are adding healing gardens and art galleries and allowing patients to select artwork to decorate the walls of their sterile rooms. "There's very good evidence that engaging patients in art and music is a way to make the burden of illness and periods of care more tolerable," says Harry Jacobson, a nephrologist and vice chancellor for health affairs at Nashville's Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which brings artists to patients' bedsides.
The trend has spawned new undertakings like the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, which opened in November. Part of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, it provides medical music therapy and researches its effects on children with asthma and adults with cardiac and pulmonary problems, as well as treating medical problems specific to musicians. In the October issue of the Journal of PeriAnesthesia Nursing, Joanne Loewy, director of the center, reported that singing lullabies slowly and softly, timed to breathing rate, was more effective than a sedative in getting infants and toddlers to sleep before an EEG, a brain scan requiring electrodes on the scalp. "Medication was either not needed or worked a lot faster if music therapy was offered," says Loewy.
Once a fixture at large hospitals, art and music therapy were largely banished as managed healthcare became more prevalent. But in recent years, patients and doctors alike have looked for ways to make medicine more human. "Medicine has become so technologically focused that the human aspect was set aside," says Nancy Morgan, director of arts and humanities at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University in Washington. Lombardi offers patients therapeutic dance sessions, writing groups, and workshops featuring quilting, clay sculpting, and painting.