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The Art of Healing

Visual and Performing Arts Take on a Bigger Role in Patient Recovery

By Beth Baker
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page HE01

Denise Simms, 32, a preschool teacher in Woodbridge, was married in May 2003. In October she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called primitive neuroectodermal tumor.

Simms now undergoes chemotherapy every three weeks at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University Hospital, a regimen that sometimes requires a five-day hospital stay.

From left, patients Andree Polley, 27, and Denise Simms, 30, do beadwork with artist Deoborah Gudelsky at Georgetown University Hospital's Lomardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. (Andrea Bruce Woodall - The Washington Post)

Along with the treatments, she gets a healthy dose of creativity through Lombardi's innovative arts program.

"Being a patient, you get cut off from the rest of the world," Simms said. "I was always with kids -- now I'm not even supposed to be around kids" because the treatment has compromised her immune system. "It's like cutting off an arm. With the arts, I feel like I'm whole again."

While at Lombardi, Simms exercises to music with a ballet dancer, listens to live musical performances, writes personal reflections and works with beads, clay and collage. "It's kind of weird that I look forward to getting chemotherapy so I can do art," she said.

She also attributes to the arts a renewed relationship with her husband.

"When I first got diagnosed, we were taking it doctor appointment by doctor appointment," Simms said. "We weren't really living. The arts brought me back to who I was and made me realize we had to get back to who we were."

Stories like this one have contributed to a blossoming of the arts in health care settings around the nation. Nearly 300 health and arts professionals and 60 speakers gathered in Alexandria in April for the 13th annual conference of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare (SAH). Health care practitioners, artists and art therapists spent four days learning about the potential healing benefits of everything from quilting and tapestry to sound therapy, storytelling, poetry, drama, painting, architectural design, photography and gardens.

The conference, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Johnson & Johnson, Smith Farm Center for the Healing Arts and the Washington Hospital Center, was a big draw for those working in hospitals and clinics, said SAH executive director Gay Hanna. "There is a hunger on the part of health care to know the arts better," she said.

Among the conference presentations:

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