A Collaborative Expression

Rebecca Gottesman and patient
Rebecca Gottesman and patient

(Originally published in Dartmouth-Hitchcock's CenterView, this is the second in a three-part series.)

"Where is he?"

The patient had gone missing again. He was what oncologist John Hill called a "macho-hunter-type of guy," only 30, and his Hodgkin's lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system) had come back. Every time he was due for chemotherapy, he vanished. And without fail, Hill said, the young man would turn up at Jesse's, saying, "I wanted to have one more big meal before my chemo."

Then he met DHMC's artist-in-residence Rebecca Gottesman, a watercolorist, and he stuck around.

"He was a great kid," Hill said. "He was very resistant to coming into the hospital. He thrived with the interaction with Rebecca. He was really able to be free of his frustration while using the watercolors, and she was a great aide to him in helping to flush out his feelings. It definitely had a really favorable effect on his depression, and being cooped up in the hospital."

Luring a lifelong hunter away from the local steakhouse armed with nothing but a paintbrush was no ordinary task, but Rebecca Gottesman is no ordinary artist. As part of Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Creative Arts Program—which also includes a creative writer, a therapeutic harpist and several volunteers—she's not just a teacher or companion. Gottesman and the others in the program must adjust to difficult situations, and have an intuitive sense of a patient's and family's needs.

Deb Steele is the manager of Patient and Family Support Services at Norris Cotton Cancer Center (NCCC). Her group supervises the artists and handles referrals. Steele co-administers Creative Arts with Elisabeth Gordon of DHMC's Arts Program.

"One of the problems that many patients face, especially long-term patients, is a feeling of isolation and powerlessness," Steele said. "Having a creative artist pay a visit, spend time with a patient, listen and engage them in meaningful self-expression can help mitigate these feelings. In some cases, patients report that they have experienced greater peace of mind and less anxiety during and after an arts visit."

Hill has seen those positive effects in the Cancer Center. "These art programs aid in diversion. Much like when someone is having pain, we can use distraction to a certain degree."

Infusion nurse N. Lee Babcock has seen that diversion for herself. "Sometimes patients don't even know their treatment is finished because they're so engrossed in what they're doing. We tell them they're done and they say, 'But wait, I'm not finished with this yet!'"

Hill feels that the Creative Arts Program has a direct impact on the clinical care Dartmouth-Hitchcock can provide. True, he said, his department is smaller than it might be in a big city.

"But what that does allow us to have is a personalized approach and address issues like this," Hill said. "Not only is it an attractive, musical and spiritual place, it's just a little bit more on the creative side than a large metropolitan cancer center."

"It's a unique part of what Dartmouth has to offer," Hill said. "We're sort of a diamond in the woods."

Therapeutic harpist Margaret Stephens says that an understanding of the holistic benefits of the arts is growing among clinicians.

"Some of my fellow therapeutic harp practitioners across the country are playing in surgical recovery rooms, emergency rooms and birthing rooms," Stephens said. "A few have even been allowed to play during surgery."

Closer to home, the benefits are obvious and immediate. Stephens once received this anonymous comment from a DHMC employee: "It's the best part of working Fridays. [Stephens] really brings calm to the unit. Sometimes we think it's her presence alone. She doesn't really have to the play the music - it's a bonus. Our patients love the harp music. So do we, the staff. And we appreciate every minute she is down here."

The Creative Arts Program is a collaboration with the Cancer Center's Patient and Family Support Services Department, and works closely with the Palliative Care Program.