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ON THE SCENE: Art in healthcare in Germany

February 28, 2011
I went to Berlin last week at the encouragement of Dr. Arnt Gerstenberger, a dentist, who suffered serve burns on his right hand and, while going through seven operations and consequential levels of pain he had heretofore thought not possible, and while at times bored out of his mind in his white and bare-walled patient room, remembered articles I had sent him about a Cleveland burn clinic that used music to reduce the experience of pain, hospital walls decorated with art, and musicians, painters and poets that visited patients in their room engaging them in arts activities. He decided he didn’t want other patients to have to go what he went through. He decided it was time to import some of these American ideas to Germany.

I first met Dr. Gerstenberger at a family reunion held in Gerstenberg, Germany, the ancestral home of my mother’s family shortly after her death back in 2004. Indeed it was going through her affects that I found an invitation that had recently arrived to attend the first such international gathering, then possible because the Berlin Wall and had come down and East and West Germany had been united. At the second such reunion, held in Lake Placid and hosted by the Golden Arrow, Dr. Gerstenberger articulated a dream of international exchanges between the German and American branches of the family. It was there during a show and tell of different careers that he learned about my work, then at Dartmouth Medical School and Medical Center, in using the arts to foster healing.

In the United States there is a near balance between professional artists and arts therapists working in hospitals. 79 percent of nearly 3,000 hospitals that have arts programming have an arts coordinator. Slightly more than half of these hospitals partner with outside cultural institutions. In the U.S. artists are working in ER (aka ED) waiting rooms, musicians perform in lobbies, carts filled with arts supplies are taken to patient rooms even at Walter Reed, our nation’s foremost Army hospital, and programs are developed not just for patients, but increasingly for the hospital staff to reduce their anxieties and, of consequence, enhance patient safety.

One of the outcomes of Dr Gerstenberger and my visits with the leadership of two of the most respected hospitals in Germany, where I gave Grand Rounds presentations, and faculty and students at the two leading arts academies in Berlin, was that we learned that various arts activities do take place in hospitals in Germany, but that the practitioners are isolated and do not know about the work of others and that the scale, range and scope of activities is relatively modest in comparison to how the arts are being used in the United States.

Artists, arts therapists and hospital healthcare and administration staff were amazed to learn about arts programming in healing in the United States. At the same time, I witnessed one truly transformative program at the DRK Westend Hospital that was innovative by any standard. Westend does not have an arts collection, yet its walls are filled with art. Instead of purchasing art, so it may “Collect dust on the walls over the decades” says the arts coordinator Dr. Anne Marie Freybourg, they treat the hospital buildings and campus as a giant gallery filled with a series of, at this time, one-person exhibits that displayed the artist’s work from six month to a year intervals.

“We prefer changing exhibits because it helps freshen the spaces for the staff,” said Freyborg, “and we pay the artists a fee, we, in effect rent their work. Some of the artists are well known and others are emerging talents. Many more people see their art than in most galleries. When we open a new exhibit, we have an opening just like any galley with food, brochures and articles. We have a party in the cafeteria or lobby. It makes for nice celebrations for the artists and staff.”

The outcome of my visit was UKB, the leading trauma center, agreeing to host a 3-month pilot program in the spring of 2012 that would have two components, arts activities in their ER (ED) waiting rooms, patient rooms and with the therapy departments, and a research project to examine the benefits of the arts for trauma patients. All programs would be evaluated. UKB will recruit their affiliate graduate school in nursing administration as a partner. Their goal is to use the outcomes to expand this program as an ongoing activity, and to their 12 affiliates across Germany.

Westend agreed to host a national conference on the arts in healthcare (fall 2012), and a program of arts activities for patients and staff as well. The two arts academies, the University of the Arts Berlin and the School of Arts, Berlin-Weissensee, will provide platforms for training artists and arts therapists, many to participate in these activities drawing upon both their students and alumnae representing an array of artistic disciplines. Meanwhile, one therapist and her sister, who is living with cancer, are considering coming to attend a September Adirondack Healing Retreat for women living with cancer to both benefit from the experience and get ideas on how it may be replicated in Germany. In addition representatives of the Berlin-Wanasee and military hospital have asked for invitations to attend an October conference on arts in healing for the military, which will be held at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, as PTSD is a huge concern in Germany.

My stay included visits to cultural institutions, a tour of a World War II bunker, a ceiling to rooftop tour of the Templehof airport, where the Berlin Airlift was based, an outing with the parents and classmates of one of Dr. Gerstenberger’s daughters, a very enjoyable evening of bowling and other introductions to life in Germany in the recent past and today. Grand fun was teaching his two daughters how to make Adirondack Flapjacks from scratch using my grandmother’s recipe (I recommend taking the family out for breakfast at the Mirror Lake Inn to get a first hand experience of this treat that is way lighter than your average pancakes).



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