Twelve-year-old Selphie Luann Enderle has been in and out of Seattle Children’s Hospital since she was 3 years old for treatment of cystic fibrosis. While the long hospital stays can be difficult, there is one activity that she always looks forward to – her art therapy sessions. The joy these sessions bring her is evident by her reaction to the sight of art therapist Helena Hillinga Haas approaching her hospital room with a colorful cart in tow, overflowing with markers, crayons and construction paper.
“You’re here!” she exclaims as she jumps out of bed, throwing her hands in the air and running to the door. “I’ve been waiting.”
Selphie is one the many patients at Seattle Children’s who benefit from the unique therapy that compliments traditional medicine by providing patients with a creative outlet to express themselves, process emotions and reconnect to the playfulness of childhood. As art therapists, Hillinga Haas and Rosalie Frankel are trained to develop patient’s art skills while also focusing on their emotional needs.
“We work to address the mind-body connection and aid in the healing process by helping our patients relax and express their emotions in an enjoyable way,” said Frankel, who began the art therapy program at Seattle Children’s 15 years ago. “Our goal is always to help our patients find moments of comfort by providing them with this cathartic outlet that also often serves as a welcomed distraction.”
A rainbow of benefits
Hillinga Haas explains that the benefits of art therapy are vast and can be unique to each patient. For many kids, she said, it helps to normalize the experience of being in the hospital by reconnecting them with who they are and encouraging them to think about their interests beyond the hospital walls. She said it can also be a phenomenal tool for communication and relationship building, especially for nonverbal patients.
“The hospital can be a hard place for kids where words can be hard to come by,” said Hillinga Haas. “It’s incredible what you can learn from a child based on their drawings and by seeing what they may feel, love, miss or fear in that moment. Their art can start vital conversations that can help us and the child’s care team better address their emotional needs.”
Frankel adds that it can also serve a functional purpose for kids who may be working to rehabilitate their arm or hand because activities like drawing or molding clay encourage them to use that limb and build strength. Even when a patient is having a difficult day or doesn’t feel well, he or she is usually very receptive to art, Frankel said.
“In an environment where patients are mostly passive to what’s going on around them, kids really resonate with an activity that gives them choices and control to create whatever comes to mind,” said Frankel.
Patient’s share their perspective
No one understands the benefits of art therapy better than patients like Selphie who experience them first-hand.
“I love how art can really help capture and remind me of my happy moments, like taking a picture,” Selphie said with a grin. “It also helps to calm me down and it makes my imagination go wild.”
For 11-year-old Jaylin Israel-Tompson, who is being treated for osteosarcoma, he said art “helps relax him and makes him happy.” His mom, Robyn Israel-Cox, said not only does the art brighten his day, but it also serves as a window into his thoughts and emotions.
“It’s amazing to see the transformation in him after he works with Rosalie – he’s always left feeling content and much calmer,” said Israel-Cox. “We find that he communicates so much through his drawings where whatever is on his mind comes out on paper. He’ll draw images where he is in control of something like a machine because he has little control of what’s happening in his real life, or he’ll draw animals that are eating his favorite food because he is having a hard time eating that day.”
For Frankel and Hillinga Haas, providing therapy in the form of art and seeing the profound effect it has not only on the patients, but also on the parents, is an incredibly rewarding experience.
“We just feel so privileged to provide these moments of joy and comfort to our patients,” said Frankel. “We also love seeing parents smile as they watch their kids laughing and having fun, especially during such a hard time. Art is powerful and everyday we see it work in wonderful ways.”
To see Frankel and Hillinga Haas and the art therapy program in action, watch the KING 5 Evening Magazine segment.
If you’d like to support the art therapy program at Seattle Children’s, please visit our donation page and choose to give to the “Therapeutic Play Fund.”