ST. LUKE’S HEALTH NETWORK
The healing properties of art, whether from making or participating in it, or from just observing and enjoying it, are well documented. The list of benefits ranges from alleviating depression to reducing stress, lowering blood pressure and actually alleviating symptoms. With that in mind, the St. Luke’s University Health Network officially established a Healing Arts Program last fall for cancer patients at its Bethlehem, Allentown and Anderson campuses. That was only the beginning, though.
In addition to the cancer centers, the program is being expanded to the St. Luke’s Baby and Me Support Center, where new mothers have worked on art projects. Soon it will also be available to the inpatient pediatric department at the Bethlehem campus.
This February, the program to “tap into the power of art to comfort and heal” was formally dedicated in a ceremony at the Anderson Campus, along with three of “Erica’s Art Carts.” The carts, which are stuffed with art supplies, are named in memory of Erica Curtis, who died in 2018 at age 40 after a two-year battle with cancer. Kristen Ward, coordinator of the Healing Arts Program, said Erica found comfort during her cancer treatment by creating jewelry from materials in the art carts
Ward, who has been an art teacher for 36 years and artist-in-residence at St. Luke’s since September, said the benefit for patients goes far beyond the actual making of the art. Referring to cancer patients at the infusion centers where they get chemotherapy treatment, she explained, “I think what the patients get overall is a wonderful distraction. You have patients sitting there hooked up to medication and they expect to be miserable all day.”
Noting that art therapy isn’t just for cancer patients, Ward said the creative process, whether sketching a simple drawing or looking at art or talking about it, can help transport patients outside of themselves and lower stress and anxiety.
During the dedication ceremony, Dr. Lee Riley, oncologist and “father of St. Luke’s Cancer Center,” talked about the glass pendant project that he developed from his passion for glass sculpting and jewelry making. Patients are able to select the iridescent colors and create the designs they want for their pendant out of scraps of dichroic glass donated by Dr. Riley, who then fires them in his basement kiln. Calling it a cottage industry, Riley said more than 300 pendants have been made so far.
“People say, ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I can’t paint,’ but they can pick out colors of glass they like and put them together in an abstract way,” Riley said. “I think there’s a basic human need to express oneself, to tell one’s story. The program helps patients express themselves in a visual way.”
An unintended result is that for some patients, the pendants have become keepsakes and mementos of their fight against cancer.