When words are not enough

Expressive art therapy is helping children and families turn illness into inspiration and empowerment.

Norton Children’s Hospital offers expressive art therapy to patients, their family members and caregivers free of charge as part of an integrative approach to care.

Art therapy is an evidence-based practice that allows patients to “express what is on their minds and in their hearts in a safe setting,” said Elizabeth Sanders Martin, expressive art therapist at Norton Children’s Hospital.

Art therapy helps people of all ages explore their feelings, manage behavior, develop coping skills, reduce anxiety and process trauma.

Martin has worked in art therapy for nearly 13 years and believes it is a natural, creative outlet for children dealing with medical conditions, especially when medical experiences are overwhelming and words are not enough.

Medical art therapists adapt therapy sessions to the individual needs of each patient or family member to suit the diagnosis or situation. Each session is deeply personal and incorporates a variety of art materials such as clay, sculpture, textiles, fabrics, photography, scrapbooking and more. Art materials vary based on the child or family member’s preference, strengths, age and needs.

“Choosing the type of material used empowers the patient by giving them control in a medical setting where they likely feel out of control,” said Emily Welsh, art therapist with Norton Cancer Institute. “For example, giving someone choices about whether to use two-dimensional or three-dimensional materials — in addition to freedom to use traditional or nontraditional art media — can create a place of safety where people can access strengths, seek meaning and make relationships.”

Martin created “Scrapbooking Fridays” for caregivers and family members of patients in the “Just for Kids” Critical Care Center and neonatal intensive care unit at Norton Children’s Hospital. Families may not be able to hold or touch their children in these units. Scrapbooking is a special way to stay connected and helps them process and cope with a child’s diagnosis. Whether it’s the child’s parent, grandparent or caregiver adding photos or journaling about the patient, the family is committing the child’s story to paper and creating a beautiful keepsake that provides a sense of connection.

“It helps families preserve their child’s story and honor them,” Martin said.

Martin and Welsh recently helped complete a public mural displayed at the Louisville Marriott Downtown. Funded by the Children’s Hospital Foundation, the mural features inspirational iPad drawings by patients of Norton Children’s Hospital and their family members. Local artist Bryan Patrick Todd put the patients’ work together into the mural on display on the side of the hotel.

Participating in community exhibitions like the Marriott mural project enhances patients’ art therapy goals by providing them with the opportunity to see how they can fit into the world outside of the hospital setting.

“It allows patients to contribute to a project that brings awareness, inspiration and hope to their community,” Welsh said.

“Giving back can be a source of empowerment for the patient,” Martin added.

The artists behind the Marriott mural drawings and other art therapy projects develop a sense of pride in their work, and that artwork becomes a legacy for the child and family to cherish.

“The art is so meaningful and provides tangible evidence of the patient’s or family member’s experience at the hospital,” Welsh said. “For some, the artwork they create can be a source of inspiration during post-hospital life; for others, it can serve as a commemoration of the child.”

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