Information

The art of healing - how art & photos can bring a touch of home

Date Posted: 31.07.2012

A project aimed at stimulating patients in isolation wards with art work and photos of loved ones is making recovery that little bit easier.
FIVE YEARS ago Katie Verling was the artistic director of Glor Irish Music Centre in Ennis, Co Clare. As the founding director of the company she had been running the centre for 11 years and lived a fast-paced hectic lifestyle.

Today the 49 year old is on an invalidity pension after suddenly becoming ill with a rare form of cancer. She spent nine months in hospital with much of her rehabilitation in complete isolation. The gruelling treatment thankfully eradicated the leukaemia but Verling believes her recovery was also aided by a unique programme in St James’s Hospital called Open Windows which was invented by Denis Roche and funded by the Irish Cancer Society, the Arts Council and the Vodafone Foundation of Ireland.

“I was hospitalised suddenly on July 5th, 2007 with what was diagnosed as acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in Limerick Regional Hospital,” recalls Verling. “I had been feeling very tired in the weeks leading up to this and had a pain in my back which began to travel down my leg. I visited my doctor who put me on a course of painkillers as I thought I had pulled a muscle or put a disc out in my back from gardening.

“After three weeks, the medication hadn’t eased the pain, so I went back to see my GP and he asked me on a scale of one to 10 how bad the pain was. I have never had a baby but knew that giving birth would be very high up there in the pain stakes so I said my level would be probably less than that – around an eight. But the doctor said by looking at me he could tell I was at least a 12. So I was sent into hospital in Limerick for tests and the next day I was brought to St James’s Hospital to Burkitt’s Ward – the national specialised unit for treatment of haematology and oncology. It was the only unit in the State with 22 individual rooms for those requiring complete isolation during treatment.”

Once her treatment began Verling spent long periods of time in hospital and as the chemotherapy killed off her white blood cells, she had no immunity which meant she was required to spend weeks in complete isolation.

“Over the course of 18 months I spent almost nine months in St James’s,” she recalls. “I was treated aggressively for the leukaemia and then had many complications afterwards which required prolonged periods in hospital. My time in isolation was very hard. I was in a completely sterile room with white walls which had to be cleaned every day. I was separated from the rest of the hospital and everyone who visited me had to wash their hands three times before even entering the ante-room which created a vacuum and prevented air from getting into my room.

“It was total sensory deprivation. The only sound was the hum of the clean air being pumped into the room. And there were no smells either which is a very strange sensation. I remember one day seeing a guy cutting the grass outside. I felt like I was in prison and desperately pressed my face up against the window to try to smell the grass. I was going stir crazy.”

Verling needed a bone marrow transplant and during this time was required to spend five weeks in isolation. Aware of the sensory limitations on patients undergoing this treatment, doctors offered her the chance to take part in a new project called Open Windows where art work, visually simulating images and even photos of loved ones are projected onto the walls of the isolation room to allow patients some stimulation during this extremely trying time.

“I was introduced to the Open Windows project when I returned to hospital after five months of chemotherapy for a bone marrow transplant [donated from my brother Luke],” explains Verling. “I spent five weeks in hospital at that stage and it was then that I was asked and agreed to participate in the project.

“It was around Christmas time and my boyfriend Tom took lots of photos of friends, family and my nieces and nephews and emailed them to the digital projector in my room which measured about 4x4ft. That touch with home was so important to me. It was a brilliant diversion and definitely soothed me.

“I have a huge interest in visual arts and there was also the option of some fantastic artwork and a lovely video of horses grazing in a sunlit field.

“There was something to suit my every mood and as I was lying in a bed for 24 hours a day without the energy to read, eat or watch TV, the visual stimulation really took my mind off things and at times it felt just like an open window. I have now recovered from leukaemia [but have suffered long-term effects from the treatment with persistent fatigue and a motion disorder] and really believe that it is important to address both the physical and psychological aspects of an illness and in this respect the Open Windows programme has a vital role.”

Prof Shaun McCann is responsible for the smooth running of the project. He says it is important that the images used are soothing and beneficial for patients. “Images can be very potent so we have to be very careful that none of them upset the patients who are in recovery,” he says. “We have an arts committee to oversee what is being shown and psychologists on hand in case anyone does get upset – but thankfully we haven’t had to call on them yet as the system is rigorously controlled.

“Open Windows is a great idea and if it works in a confined environment like the Burkitt’s ward, it will work anywhere.”
 Source : The Irish Times Health supplement, 31st July 2012


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