At first, the young woman lying in the hospital bed wouldn't even look at Lynn Borkenhagen, let alone talk to her. The woman had metastatic ovarian cancer and had come to Mayo Clinic looking for a miracle. None was to be had. She had arrived at the hospital bright-eyed and hopeful, but over the course of three weeks had retreated deep into herself. Staff members caring for her had called on Borkenhagen, a palliative care nurse practitioner, for help.
Since the patient wouldn't speak, her husband filled the silence, telling Borkenhagen about his wife and their arranged marriage, which had blossomed into love. When he mentioned their six-year-old daughter, the woman turned to Borkenhagen and finally spoke. "How will she remember how much I love her?" she asked.
"She was so concerned about her daughter," Borkenhagen says. "This woman knew she was dying. She needed a way to do legacy work for her daughter." So Borkenhagen reached out to Mayo's Arts at the Bedside program, part of Mayo's Center for Humanities in Medicine, which connects patients with writers, visual artists, and musicians. A writer began coming to the woman's hospital room each day, working with her to capture the stories, memories, and love that she wanted to leave behind for her family. "It was an epiphany," Borkenhagen says. "She started to become more herself again. She emotionally came to a better place. The experience was healing to the patient."
Jenna Whiting, a visual artist working with the program, has seen that healing take place many times. Over the past seven years, Whiting has experienced the difference that art—and the human connection that accompanies it—can make to people facing difficult circumstances. A couple of days a week, Whiting loads up a large canvas bag with various art mediums and makes visits to patients throughout Mayo Clinic hospitals. "I bring different materials, depending on which unit I'm going to visit," she says.
For example, onesies and personalized nursery artwork are popular with expectant mothers who are hospitalized. In palliative care and oncology areas, it's often watercolor pencils, canvas painting, or greeting cards. "I pop into patient rooms, explain what the program is all about, and ask if they're interested in creating something," she says. If the answer is "Yes," Whiting pulls out her materials and engages the patient in a type of care that has nothing to do with tests or treatments. "I'm not there to poke or do checks on the patient. I am simply there to spend time with them and connect creatively and through conversations, getting to know them outside of their diagnosis," Whiting says.
Which serves as a good reminder of what—or rather, who—health care is all about. "We aren't treating a disease; we're treating a person," Borkenhagen says. "It's so important for providers to turn away from the computers and be present with patients. To open their hearts to patients and hear their stories. People are more than just their disease. We need to explore all avenues for healing our patients, and the arts are another avenue of healing."
You can learn more about Arts at the Bedside—and see Whiting in action—in this short video.