Healing Through Art

Culver City resident, John Delgado (far left), is pictured with Heather Dodge, RN, founder of the medical center’s Healing Through Art program, and volunteer Vignesh Balasundaram.

By Ted Braun


John Delgado rated his pain at 9 on a scale from zero to 10 – even when he was taking medication to reduce its severity. Then, with encouragement from nurses and volunteers at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, he picked up a paint brush and focused on recreating the image before him. To his surprise, he realized he was experiencing less pain.

“When I’m painting, my mind is set on what I’m doing, and not my pain level,” said the Culver City resident, who has been a hospital patient several times during this past year.

That’s exactly the response registered nurse Heather Dodge hoped for when she started bringing art supplies to her medical-surgical unit last year – a unit where patients spend days, weeks or sometimes months.

“As an artist and a nurse, I saw a huge opportunity to help keep patients occupied with art rather than focusing solely on their pain and illness, said Dodge, who earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2012, after receiving her bachelor’s degree in fine art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. She actually began as a hospital volunteer in 2010 before becoming a certified nursing assistant and later an RN.

These experiences led her to combine her loves of art and nursing by exploring a new approach to help patients deal with pain, stress and isolation while hospitalized. As she began visualizing this new approach to healing, she wondered how to attract dedicated volunteers like herself to help with the program.

“My challenge was to create a meaningful experience that would help distract patients from their illness and pain by offering them an outlet for creativity while keeping volunteers actively engaged in the program,” she said.

The answer was to provide art supplies and inspiration to patients and volunteers, allowing them to work together to create paintings or other projects. The outreach was an immediate success, with patients like Delgado and others welcoming an opportunity to express themselves through art while interacting with volunteers.

As artwork was completed, Dodge asked patients if they would like to keep the painting or donate it to the “Healing Through Art” program. If patients opted to donate the piece, Dodge would frame and gift it to another patient on the unit during the holiday season.

“In this way, each piece of artwork has the potential to touch yet another life,” Dodge said. To date, about 64 works of art have been gifted for other patients during Hanukkah and Christmas.

Currently, the program is evolving to include additional types of art, and may soon expand to other units at the medical center. While Dodge has funded the fledgling effort with personal funds, she hopes to receive support through a grant and have the program become part of the hospital’s Volunteer Program.

Dodge thinks similar programs are a rarity in hospitals nationwide. Although many hospitals have child-life specialists who do art projects and provide play therapy to help pediatric patients deal with the uncertainty and monotony of hospital stays, few have equivalent art programs for adult patients.

“The same anxieties and fears common to hospitalized children are still very relevant in our adult population, and helping patients discover their ‘voice in color’ provides a fundamental vehicle for self-expression,” she said.

“I truly believe this personal interaction while creating art can play an important role in helping someone heal faster, manage stress and have a better overall hospital experience,” she continued.

Delgado agrees, and is glad he had a chance to participate in the program. “Lying there in pain, I was kind of desperate, so I started painting,” he explained, “and sure enough I stopped thinking about my pain, and started realizing it wasn’t that bad. The program really helped me.”

For more information about the program or to donate art supplies, please contact Heather Dodge [email protected]

Culver City resident, John Delgado (far left), is pictured with Heather Dodge, RN, founder of the medical center’s Healing Through Art program, and volunteer Vignesh Balasundaram.