UF Doctor's Book Provides Lessons On Dealing With Chronic Illness Through Art

Published: August 23 2000

Category:Arts, Health, Research

GAINESVILLE, Fla.—When she developed a rare bone marrow disease and was no longer able to cook family meals, clean the house or even work, “Brenda” had a difficult time coping with the disruption to her successful and well-ordered life.

To help regain control and contend with her uncertain future, Brenda turned to painting, covering hundreds of pieces of paper with splotches and swirls of color. Painting comforted her. She began to feel the paper and paints were her friends, with whom she could express her deepest thoughts, feelings and fears.

Just as a major motion picture featured Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams’ unique use of humor to heal, University of Florida College of Medicine Professor John Graham-Pole advocates the therapeutic powers of other art forms.

In a new book called “Illness and the Art of Creative Self-Expression,” Graham-Pole uses the story of Brenda (not her real name) and others he’s met or cared for coupled with creative exercises to teach people with chronic illnesses — and those who care for them — how to explore their artistic, imaginative and intuitive sides. Doing so will help them better deal with their maladies and increase their health and happiness, he says.

Adams, who authored the book’s foreword, says creativity is great medicine for everyone because it prevents disease and promotes wellness. “Art uplifts, educates, brings beauty and facilitates social change. Bringing imagination to our every endeavor makes us happier and healthier,” Adams writes.

Graham-Pole’s 201-page how-to book, to be released this month by New Harbinger Publications, suggests a dose of art can help people work through times when they feel powerless. The book advocates a move toward a holistic approach emphasizing health instead of illness, one that partners science with art and makes well-being a shared effort.

“Living in our busy lives we don’t take time to do art — language arts, musical arts, visual arts, performance arts. But when we’re confronted by illness, suddenly the rug is pulled from under our feet. We sort of lose our way; we can’t make sense of it,” Graham-Pole said.

“But people are helped enormously to be able to really improve their mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health individually and collectively if they are given the opportunity to turn to art, not just as a diversion or for fun, but to help them understand why this is happening to them.”

Historically, healers and shamans, who provide health care to the majority of the world’s people, have used art as part of their craft. But until recently, its use in modern medicine has not been widely accepted. That’s changing, however, as the international movement toward the healing arts expands and more scientists recognize the benefits. For example, British law requires that 1 percent of its national health-care budget must be spent on art in hospitals – not just for art on the walls, but for art and artists, Graham-Pole said.

To help him better deal with his life’s difficult and challenging work caring for children battling cancer, Graham-Pole turned to writing poetry a decade ago. He is a professor of pediatric oncology affiliated with the Shands Cancer Center at UF, an affiliate professor of clinical and health psychology, and medical director and co-founder of UF’s Arts in Medicine program, which brings in specially trained artists to help patients at Shands at UF medical center and their families focus on the body, mind and spirit.

Graham-Pole’s poetry about his work with ill children won an award in May from the National Association for Poetry Therapy and will be published next year in a book called “ER Exit.” His poems also have been set to original music and released recently on a compact disc called “Where Do All The Young Ones Go To?”

An estimated 100 million Americans suffer from some kind of chronic illness or medical limitation. Millions more family members and health professionals care for them.

“The aim is to bring imagination, creativity and art back into life in order to maximize our health no matter our situation — however old we are, however sick we are, however close to death we are — being as healthy as we can be whether we’re doctors and nurses, or whether we’re patients or family members,” Graham-Pole said. “Art is simply a tool to help fulfill ourselves in the larger sense individually and collectively.”

Getting started is easy. The supplies are inexpensive. You don’t have to be an artist to do them.

Among those included in the book is an exercise directing the reader to scrutinize the contours of an object several times before trying to follow them with pen on paper without looking. Another guides people back to their natural creativity by directing them to remember all the artistic things they liked to do as a small child.

Several journalizing exercises are included, one of which requires dredging up the worst, most upsetting experience and spending a full 15 minutes writing down one’s deepest feelings about it, without pausing. The benefits of journalizing are not new. Studies have shown that keeping a journal, writing about the most traumatic events in life and trying to problem-solve can improve physical symptoms for conditions as diverse as rheumatoid arthritis and serious chronic asthma in adults, Graham-Pole said.

Group art-making activities such as the story telling, collage making and quilting that are part of UF’s Arts in Medicine program also have been effective, he said.

Adams sees the importance of art and creativity and said he will share the book with other doctors and patients.

“You’ll like where it takes you, so make creating a part of your life,” Adams writes. “This is not just a primer — it’s a kick in the pants.”



Paula Rausch

Category:Arts, Health, Research