Artists in Healthcare: A Life-changing Event becomes a New Direction for One Writer

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“People need to know their life is worthwhile.”  Barbara Esrig

On a rainy evening, coming back from seeing a patient, Barbara Esrig , a psychiatric homecare nurse,at the time came face to face with an oncoming car which was trying to pass four or five other cars when they wouldn’t let him back in the lane. The head-on collision resulted in an accident injuring her so badly she was deemed a fatality at the scene.  Barbara survived with 164 broken bones and paralyzed vocal cords.  She attributes much of her amazing recovery to not only a remarkable staff of surgeons and medical staff but equally to her many friends who were both traditional and non-traditional medical people, and some friends who happened to be artists in the Shands Arts in Medicine (AIM) program (now called UFHealth.Arts in Medicine).

Barbara Esrig, writer
Barbara Esrig, writer

Both arms and both legs broken, on a respirator with only a pointing board for communication, Barbara’s hospital room at Alachua General Hospital became the place to be.  People decorated every inch of her room with art, including the IV poles.  Members of the AIM program, still in its infancy at the time, came by regularly to sing to her.  As Barbara describes it, her room was transformed into an “amazing healing environment.”  Word spread and soon doctors, nurses and others were hanging out in Barbara’s room.  Barbara says, “As bad as I was, the room was a really positive place.”

Unable to speak above a whisper for two years and in a wheelchair for three, Barbara came to the realization at the age of 50, that she would never be a nurse again.  Barbara had been writing since the age of ten and had a degree in Cultural Anthropology as well as a nursing degree.  During her recovery, Barbara turned back to her first love of writing.  Writing  and listening to people’s stories became her sustenance throughout her long recovery.

While she was recovering, Shands Hospital acquired Alachua General Hospital where Barbara had been and where she was introduced to the magic of the Arts in Medicine program.  Lauren Arce, then Office Manager for the AIM program called Barbara and asked her to come to their meeting.  Lauren asked Barbara to bring some of her writings to share with the others in the program.  After that first meeting, Barbara was asked to join the AIM program as a writer at Alachua General Hospital.  She did and a new career was born.

Barbara says she sees the world in stories and loves to listen to the stories of people’s lives.  She began to visit patients in their room to hear their stories because “it’s important for them to remember who they are when they’re not in a hospital gown.”  According to Barbara, “People have amazing stories.  It’s like hitchhiking.  You never know who you’ll pick up.”  “Disguised in a hospital gown may be a scientist, a maker of moonshine, a CEO, you never know.”  Barbara says over the years she has heard stories of survival, escape from war torn countries, ancestors arrival in the new country, childhood customs, traditional foods and more.  As an avid cook, Barbara particularly loves to hear the stories of family recipes and special holiday foods, occasionally going home to recreate the foods and bring them back to the patient.

From nurse to writer of oral histories, a life -changing event led Barbara Esrig to a new life direction.  Today, she takes the oral histories of patients at UF Health/Shands Hospital and transcribes them in the patient’s voice with no editing.  She provides both a written copy and a CD recording to the patient or family.  Barbara points out that she purposely does not edit.  When an unedited story is provided to the patient’s family, they recognize the patient’s voice and not the edited voice of the listener, an important difference distinguishing an oral history from a biography.

Many hospital patients often feel reduced to “The Heart” in room 2412, or “the diabetic in room 3400.”  Oral histories let patients, families and hospital staff see more than a disease.  Oral histories show the amazing person rather than the diagnosis.  Barbara Esrig is there to tell the world about as many amazing people as she can on a day-to-day basis.  She says, “you go along in a certain direction in your life, then something suddenly happens and all that changes.”  She says fifteen years ago she,”came in through the back door as a patient,” to the Arts in Medicine program.  From life-changing event to a new life, Barbara Esrig now supports others through their life changing events by giving them a voice. Barbara assists patients to tell others who they are as a person and not as a disease.

Read more about Barbara’s wonderful work at the following link:

*Thanks to Barbara for her contributions to this article!

Arts in Healthcare: A Chance Encounter and a Pair of Bunny Slippers Transform an Artist’s Life

Sand Cranes by Mary Lisa Kitakis-Spano
Sand Cranes mosaic by Mary Lisa Kitakis-Spano

“It changed my whole attitude about how I was an artist in the world.”—Mary Lisa Kitakis-Spano

A number of years ago, Mary Lisa Kitakis-Spano was an active painter who also created fun whimsical items for sale at craft fairs.  It was at one craft fair that Mary Lisa first met Helen Walsh, Nurse Manager of the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at the University of Florida’s Shands Hospital.  Walsh told Mary Lisa about a new program they had planned for the patients on the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit and asked Mary Lisa to come be a part of the program.  Mary Lisa at first didn’t think she had anything to contribute and turned down the suggestion.  Several craft fairs later after Walsh had become one of her best customers, Mary Lisa decided to find out what the program was all about.  It was the introduction to a seven-year old patient in bunny slippers who stole Mary Lisa’s heart and changed the course of her life and her art.

Mary Lisa 2As Mary Lisa describes it, she was introduced to “the beautiful little girl in the bunny slippers” and was asked to encourage the little girl to make art with her.  Together they first painted a tee shirt, then a hat and more.  The little girl’s treatment was long and arduous and her family was far away with more children at home to take care of.  The family joined in the art making when they could but more often it was Mary Lisa and the little girl. Eventually, the medical treatment took a toll on the child leaving her too weak to paint.  She began to direct Mary Lisa on what to paint.  She would describe what to paint and Mary Lisa would paint, side by side with the little patient.  Mary Lisa says the interaction was, “amazing, it took my heart.”

After that first experience, Mary Lisa watched other artists interacting with patients.  The University of Florida, Shands Hospital Art in Medicine (AIM) program was at the time working with artist, Lee Ann Dobson to put together a large mosaic piece for the hospital lobby from ceramic tiles painted by the patients.  Mary Lisa collaborated with Nancy Lassater and began creating mosaic pieces for the patients in other parts of the hospital.  The work with mosaics led Mary Lisa to become a mosaic artist herself.  She has since created a number of beautiful pieces currently on permanent display at the hospital. One of her mosaics for the children’s unit is an elaborate colorful creation of whimsical birdhouses.

MaryLisa 3For her most recent work, Mary Lisa spent time talking with the young patients and their families, hearing their stories.  She soon discovered all the patients wanted to be outside.  She asked them where their favorite places outside were.  One child liked the University of Florida’s Bat House (a popular attraction), others liked horses, some liked skateboards.  Mary Lisa took all these family stories and incorporated them into the mosaic, including the Bat House.  Some of the children placed a few of the actual pieces into the mosaic.  Mary Lisa says this mosaic became about being outside.Mary Lisa 4

Twenty years ago, Mary Lisa Kitakis-Spano joined UF’s AIM program and began working with the young patients of the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit and the pediatric units.  She shares her experiences every summer with aspiring artists in healthcare at the AIM program’s Summer Intensive.  Mary Lisa says, “We rarely have the opportunity to truly make a difference with our art.  Sometimes it can be something as simple as drawing a picture of a child’s pet.”  That simple picture can make a huge difference to one small child facing a life altering hospital experience.

Mary Lisa’s chance encounter with Helen Walsh led to meeting the “beautiful little girl in the bunny slippers,” and on to many more patients and many more stories.  Each and every patient and experience became an opportunity for Mary Lisa, through her art, to touch the lives of others in a deeply meaningful way.  Today Mary Lisa continues making art with and for patients and their families, and creating the exquisitely beautiful mosaics that have become her sustaining art.

To learn more about Mary Lisa and her work at The University of Florida’s Arts in Medicine (AIM) program, follow the link:

Art in Healthcare–UF’s Arts in Medicine

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Art in all its forms, heals.”  Dr. Andre Churchwell

The University of Florida’s Arts in Medicine (AIM) program has now expanded to offer a Master of Arts in Arts in Medicine.  Enrollment begins this year for Fall 2014.  AIM is a well -established program that has been leading the field for over 20 years.  UF’s Shands Hospital has an artist-in-residence program with artists ranging from dancers, musicians, painters, poets, writers and more.

These amazing artists work with patients, families and others on the unit in the hospital.  They put on performances in the lobby of the hospital and other venues.  They work with senior citizens centers.  And the work these artists are doing is truly heart-warming.  People with Parkinson’s disease are able to improve mobility through dance in the Dance for Life program.  Cancer patients express their feelings about the disease through poetry writing, painting and more.  Children create art together in the children’s units under the direction of the artists in residence.  Writers assist patients to tell the stories of the patient’s life. All of the art programs are conducted by working artists.

The AIM program engages in research to reveal the benefits of art in healthcare.  The program works with the community in various programs.  Follow the links to learn more about the program and all the many exciting ways art is being used as a healing tool at the University of Florida’s Arts in Medicine program.

New Feature–Arts in Healthcare Mondays


“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Pablo Picasso

As I will be teaching a workshop on Arts in Healthcare in February at Watkins College of Art, Design and Film, I felt it would be good to start posting on what Arts in Healthcare is and isn’t and what is happening in the field. The arts have so much to offer to people in hospitals and clinics, inpatient and outpatient. More and more artists are turning to healthcare as a way to make a difference in people’s lives with art. And it makes a huge difference! I found out how much with my own research project. Other artists are finding out too. Whether visual artists, writers, poets, dancers, actors or musicians all can and do touch the lives of people in healthcare situations. Every Monday, I will take a look at what artists are doing in healthcare.

Arts in Healthcare is not and should not be confused with Art Therapy. Art Therapy is a treatment modality used in mental health in some form. Art Therapists are trained practitioners in the fields of counseling, sociology, and/or psychology. Art is used as a means to treat or uncover emotional issues. Art Therapy is a specific educational degree in the area of mental health. Arts in Healthcare consists of practicing artists who bring art into the healthcare setting to improve the lives of patients. Arts in Healthcare practitioners are working artists.

There is an international organization whose sole purpose is to promote the arts in healthcare. That organization was known as The Society for Arts in Healthcare but is now known as The Global Alliance for Arts in Healthcare. You can find out more about the organization (here). Many opportunities exist for artists to bring their work into healthcare settings. The Global Alliance has information on opportunities, grants and more for interested artists.

So stay tuned on Mondays and we will cover what’s happening in the field of Arts in Healthcare. My project was called Art to Heart and had two parts. One part looked at the effects of art on the patients of a cardiac unit of a large hospital. The other part looked at the difference the art made to the nursing staff and to the artists. You can check out part two at: The research with the patients is still out and we hope to see it in print soon. I’ll be talking about the research part of the project at The National Art Education Association (NAEA) annual conference in San Diego, CA in late March. Hope to see you art educators there! In the meantime, stay tuned on Mondays and we’ll talk about what artists are doing in healthcare.

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