Music and Art Have An Impact In The Hospital
Musician-in-residence Danielle DeCosmo and I took an elevator up to one of the hospital’s oncology floors and were immediately greeted by a man in a black t-shirt with short black hair and a close-shaved beard.
“Hey,” said Danielle, and we followed him around the corner toward a waiting area where floor-to-ceiling windows offer a view out over the city of Gainesville. On the other side of the glass it was a hazy July afternoon but the air inside the newly constructed building was cool, even a bit chilly.
A woman wearing a black, sleeveless sweater and khaki skirt sat in a square leather chair in front of the windows. She stood and threw open her arms when she saw Danielle. She pulled a wadded-up piece of purple tissue paper from a plastic bag.
“Here,” she said handing it to the singer. “This is for you.”
“Oh,” said Danielle as she unfolded the tissue. Inside was a tiny gray bird made of porcelain. She propped it up in the center of her palm and held it out admiringly.
“You sing like that,” said the woman. “I thought of you as soon as I saw it.” A song request soon followed — Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Danielle took a seat and began to play. The sound of her voice — resonant and melodic — filled the hospital’s waiting area. A gray-haired woman wearing a pink surgical mask and a flower-printed, loose-fitting gown walked over. She joined the singing, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
I pulled a bottle of ibuprofen from my pocket. Before we boarded the elevator, Danielle had handed it to me saying, “You can use this as a shaker.” With the bottle in my hand, I froze for a moment with fear, then began rattling the pills softly, trying to keep time with her playing. I felt relieved when she looked at me and smiled.
“Wooo,” Danielle said when the song was over. She laughed and rose from her chair.
For a brief moment, the woman who had made the request sat in her chair knocked-kneed, feet pigeon-toed like a small child’s. Her hands were clasped in front of her, arms held close to her body, her head cocked gently to one side. She stood up and put her arms around Danielle. She thanked her. Then she took the arm of the man wearing the black t-shirt, and they walked together toward the other end of the room.
Danielle, who now works as a musician at Tampa General Hospital, was one of the first artists I shadowed when I started working with UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine in May 2010. I learned about the program from the PBS documentary, “Healing Words.”
As a writer and visual artist, I was looking for ways to serve the community outside of my regular studio practice. After seeing the movie, I enrolled in the UF Center for Arts in Medicine’s certificate program and proposed an internship. I am now a writer in residence at the hospital and a member of the center’s faculty.
In a sense, my role at the hospital is a modest occupation. I wheel around a cart filled with art supplies — paint, small canvases, journals, colored pencils and drawing paper — and ask patients if they would like to participate in an creative activity. But the impact of music and art in clinical settings can be transformational.
Program Director Tina Mullen says Arts In Medicine gives patients back the gift of self-control. Exercising creativity in a hospital can help patients contribute to their own decision-making processes again and give them a means of communicating how they feel.
Karen Brunty Cornelius was the patient who gave Danielle the porcelain bird that day in July 2010. Just 43 years old, she was being treated for cancer at UF Health. Her husband, Don Cornelius, was the man who greeted us at the elevator.
In December of that year, Karen and Don returned to their home in Panama City. Several days later, “Karen passed away after spending an evening in the local hospital where her heart quietly stopped,” Don wrote in an email.
Don also wrote that he and his wife had appreciated Danielle’s visits, “very possibly more than you even know.” Danielle’s visits were good for both Karen and him. “It really helped me to know that Karen had those visits to look forward to when I was gone back home to work.”
The musician’s performances have also given him a way to look back on difficult experiences with some cheerfulness. “My memories of the time I had with Karen at Shands are not only of discomfort, fear and restlessness. I get to have many happy, smiling memories, also.”