Sunday, 26 August 2012

Published in The Cape Times on Aug 15th 2012

Revolutionary New Programme Brings Art And Medicine Together

Recently I found myself in a seminar room in the old Groote Schuur Hospital – the establishment where I trained to be a doctor. I was invited there to give one of a series of talks to six arts students from the University of New Mexico and six medical students from UCT.  They constitute a pioneer group of an Art-In-Medicine (AIM) initiative.

The last time I stood on that spot, it was the trauma unit on the black side. The place was crammed with bloody patients. Two of them come to mind: an elderly man in his Sunday best, waiting in patient disbelief with a large gash on his head, his clothes soaked with blood. A female farm worker, referred from upcountry where her leg had been dragged and crushed in some vehicle accident a few days before. Her bones had not broken, but the local doctor had managed the injury so badly that she had a serious infection. There were still pieces of grass and small pebbles stuck in the wounds.

The ER been moved to the new hospital. The space I stood in is now a common room with a flip chart and place for making tea. Over a cuppa, I asked Professor Steve Reid, who is developing AIM, how the UCT students were selected for the course. He explained that the 200 second year students have a month in which they can choose one of many options from the medical to the artistic. AIM was hugely oversubscribed. A computer made the selection, then he asked each student why they had chosen this field.

Their replies echo a familiar refrain, one I have heard frequently from colleagues. These students were afraid that a career in medicine would require them to sacrifice their love of and engagement with one of the arts. They are musicians, dancers, poets, painters. They wanted to know how they might keep that nourishing flame alive as they succumbed to the demands of the training and work as doctors; also how to use their creative energies to assist patients.

Associate Professor Patrice Repar, the Director of an established AIM department at the University of New Mexico, and who brought the arts students out for the collaboration, told me a little about what she and her colleagues do. There are three prongs to her work: helping medical students and health care professionals to integrate their artistic selves with their medical practice, using art to assist patients, families, and medical staff cope with stress and trauma, and promoting art in rural community clinics as a way to foster health and wellness.  Hospital staff can participate in a meditation group, and are offered massage, artistic activities, and deep relaxation treatments during hospital hours. Staff musicians also collaborate for an on-going concert series.

I was so excited to discover that this revolution is already starting to take place in my own city, I was the first to arrive in the seminar room. As I stood up to give my talk, I half expected one of the professors who taught me over thirty years ago to storm in, demanding that we stop this nonsense immediately, that Groote Schuur is a place of serious scientific study, and flaky nonsense does not belong in the hallowed halls of learning.
But just imagine a hospital where a musician is called to play singing bowls beside your deathbed. Imagine knowing that your specialist is rehearsing for a concert, and one of the performances will be for patients, or having a general practitioner who prescribes journaling, singing or clay work to help decrease your levels of stress and gain insight into your difficulties. Imagine hospital staff painting murals to make the new Groote Schuur building a less forbidding place, one that your body might delight in. Imagine nurses, physiotherapists and doctors singing acapella to patients at the beginning of a ward round.

Last year a group of medical students played their instruments in the Groote Schuur hospital corridor as an experiment. A security guard tried to stop them, saying it was against the rules. When the students politely asked which rule they were infringing, all he managed to insist on was that we are free, but we are not free.
It is counter-intuitive for anyone, whether they inhabit the role of doctor or patient, or any other for that matter – teachers, lawyers, politicians, street sweepers – to cut off their creative limbs. Creativity is allied to eros, to libido, to the life force itself. Why would we want to exclude the life force from the healing of our bodies, our politics, our education systems?

There is an ever-widening crack in the way we have been brought up to think of as the normal and effective way of doing things. The Art-in-Medicine initiative is one of the new shoots that will flourish in the gap.


  1. Hello Dawn
    I also hold a medical degree from UCT and have recently begun a course on Integrative Medicine with Dr Maria Christodolou. I graduated 7 yrs ago but agree wholeheartedly that UCT harbours an energy of 'serious straight forward science'. I am thrilled to hear that that energy is evolving. Thank you for your inspiration and foundation shifting work...
    Dr Leila Sadien

  2. Thank you for the feedback Leila. The times are slowly changing, and we are lucky to be able to be participating in this change. Thank you for alerting me to this course - I will follow up with this for a book that is currently brewing.