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Stanford Report, August 20, 2003

Art for Health program coordinator takes a creative approach to wellness


For many patients at Stanford Hospital & Clinics, the sight of Sylvia Dolce and her art cart is a welcome one. She visits door-to-door with pastels, paints, markers, clay, magazine cut-outs and colorful paper, ready to help patients create a work of art to take their minds off upcoming procedures.

"People are sometimes in the hospital for a long time and they feel anxious or bored or depressed," said Dolce, coordinator of the hospital’s Art for Health program. "Art gets them physically engaged in the process of making something." When Dolce drops by with her materials, she sits with the patients for an hour or so, listening to their stories and providing them with encouragement and a way to express their emotions.

Sylvia Dolce stands with her ‘art cart’ in front of an exhibit of patient artwork. The exhibit, which is located in the east corridor between the ambulatory treatment unit and the ATM machines, changes every six months. Photo: Kate Ramsayer

"Some feelings are so intense, words don’t capture them," said Dolce. "Drawings are like a container – people can deposit feelings in it, then step away and gain a better perspective." Dolce emphasized that this program is for any patient who wants to be creative – no skills are required. Part of her job, she said, is to help people focus simply on the message in their work.

The Art for Health program began in 1992, when Jeanne Kennedy, director of community and patient relations, talked with artist and former cancer patient Wendy Traber, who felt art helped her own healing process. Originally, Traber took the art cart to patient bedsides two days a week. Now Dolce, two artist volunteers and a summer intern visit patients five days a week.

Dolce has been at Stanford for almost two years, and is becoming a familiar sight to clinic staff members. Many times they will suggest she visit a patient who they think needs to tell a story or could simply use a distraction. Often the art serves as something much more. Dolce remembers one woman who had a stroke and could barely pick up a paintbrush. The woman would ask for a specific color, make a couple of dots and ask for another color. "She was so happy to be painting, and so proud," recalled Dolce. When the woman left the hospital, her family said they thought painting helped in her recovery. Someimes, patients tell Dolce that focusing on their creations can help relieve their pain.

"When they start, they’re in one mood, but the art can shift that," Dolce said of the patients. "They’re usually more positive, relaxed and calm."

The chance to relax and do something fun was what appealed to Ginger Ward, a patient undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She said the art was "not only distracting, but also engaging for one’s mind," and added that as a lifelong scientist, art challenges a different part of her brain. Ward made a collage and worked with a friend to decorate a papier-mâché heart for her two children. Dolce answered her questions about what kind of paste and papers to use, and offered encouragement. "She’s a very good and engaging instructor," said Ward. "She seems genuinely interested in how a patient is doing."

Dolce herself understands the beneficial aspects of art. She started drawing as a way to express her feelings when she was working as a social worker, and realized it could be a way to help people. She earned undergraduate degrees in art and psychology and a master’s in art therapy from Concordia University in her hometown of Montreal before coming to Stanford.

"Sylvia brings sensitivity to this program," said Teresa Reyna, the director of the hospital’s arts program. "She reads people very well, and knows how to discern the needs of the patients."

Although she sees daily the difference that art can make, Dolce realizes there is a lack of scientific research to back it up. She recently became involved in a study on art and people who have epilepsy after noticing that they seemed to enjoy art more than other patients and incorporated different designs in their drawings. Dolce discussed this observation with David Anschel, MD, a fellow in epilepsy and clinical neurophysiology, and the two designed a study to determine if there is in fact a difference. Dolce is facilitating the research, and hopes to conduct more studies of art and well-being in the future.

"Art is a very wonderful way of supporting people’s health," said Dolce. "I hope more people realize the benefit of connecting with creativity and having a chance to express themselves."

Stanford's Art for Healing program: 'It made me feel less scared' (11/11/98)

Lines blur between art and medicine in new course (2/19/03)