What: Dedication of St. Luke’s Healing Arts Program and Art Carts in memory of Erica Curtis. Live demos by patient-artists. Artwork on display.
Where: Hope & Healing Room, 2nd Floor, Cancer Center, St. Luke’s Anderson Campus, Bethlehem Township.
When: 2 p.m., Monday, February 18.
George Young, a burly, 50-year-old longshoreman and volunteer firefighter from Franklin Township, N.J., had never considered creating art or wearing jewelry — certainly nothing beyond his wedding ring, gold crucifix and Maltese cross.
But these days, when people comment on the iridescent blue pendant he wears on a leather cord around his neck, Young’s proud to say, “I had cancer and I made it while I was getting chemo at St. Luke’s.”
Young is among the many oncology patients at St. Luke’s Anderson, Bethlehem and Allentown campuses who have participated in the Healing Arts program at St. Luke’s that formally began last fall.
In addition to St. Luke’s Cancer Centers, the program is being rolled out to the St. Luke’s Baby and Me Support Center where new mothers have worked on art projects, and soon it will be available to the inpatient pediatric department at St. Luke’s Bethlehem Campus. The initiative is part of St. Luke’s broader efforts to tap the power of art to comfort and heal.
Kristen Ward, coordinator of the Healing Arts program, who has been an art teacher for 36 years and an artist-in-residence at St. Luke’s since September, said the benefit for patients goes far beyond the actual making of the art. “I think what the patients get overall is a wonderful distraction. You have a patient who is sitting there hooked up to medication and they expect to be miserable all day,” she 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, she said.
Ward said some patients have become so absorbed in their art projects that they were unaware of the ringing sound coming from their IV, a warning that the line was obstructed because they’d bent their arm the wrong way.
Ward and Virginia Abbott, an artist-in-residence at St. Luke’s Bethlehem and Allentown campuses, each wheel one of three “Erica’s Art Carts” to the outpatient infusion centers or to patients in bed and offer to work on a project with them or their family member.
In September, the carts, which are packed with art supplies, were named in memory of Erica Curtis, who died at age 40 in 2018 after a two-year battle with cancer. Erica found comfort during her treatment at St. Luke’s by creating jewelry from materials in the art carts.
Ward said some of the therapeutic benefit is spending uninterrupted time engaging with the patients.
“We talk about anything and everything. I may start off talking to them about what color they’d like in their pendant and then talk about how their child is dealing with their cancer diagnosis or their wig. It gets really intense,” Ward said.
For those patients who may lack energy or who have temporarily lost their fine motor skills from chemotherapy, Abbott creates a painting for them based on their input, such as the time she painted a patient astride his motorcycle, his long hair flowing in the wind. She also makes paint-by-number images that patients can fill in themselves.
“I try to let them understand that it’s collaboration. It’s their art work, I’m just the one doing it,” she said.
Abbott calls the process an “art serenade” where she paints and the patient watches.
“It sets a mood and takes them into a different zone,” she said.
Young’s glass pendant was a project suggested by Lee Riley, MD, St. Luke’s Medical Director of Oncology Clinical Integration, and a glass artist. The patients design the small pendants out of scraps of dichroic glass donated by Riley, who later fires them in his basement kiln. Dichroic glass is a shimmery, reflective glass that changes colors in certain light.
Ward adds a bail and wire necklace, wraps and presents them to patients about a week later. The pendants have been a hit with patients and their caregivers; about 300 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,” he said. “The program helps patients express themselves in a visual way.”
Initially reluctant to design a pendant, Young said that all changed the next time he came in for another round of chemotherapy at the Infusion Center at St. Luke’s Anderson Campus and saw what his fired pendant looked like.
“When I got it back I was really blown away by how good it looked. I said, ‘Holy cow, this is beautiful,’” he said. And then he made two more.
His wife, Trisha, said he hasn’t taken off the pendant since he got it. “It’s an amazing experience to see him so engaged in making a piece of jewelry,” she said.
Beyond taking his mind off the initial anxiety and the eventual tediousness of getting an IV drip of cancer-fighting medicine through a port in his chest, Young said the experience of designing the glass pendants through the Healing Arts program has been transformational. The pendant has become a keepsake, he said, a memento of the colorectal cancer he fought, the phenomenal care and treatment he got at St. Luke’s and the friends he made at the Infusion Center.
“Honestly, I’ll be wearing this for the rest of my life,” Young said.
About St. Luke’s
Founded in 1872, St. Luke’s University Health Network (SLUHN) is a fully integrated, regional, non-profit network of more than 15,000 employees providing services at 10 hospitals and more than 300 outpatient sites. With annual net revenue greater than $2 billion, the Network’s service area includes 10 counties: Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Montgomery, Monroe and Schuylkill counties in Pennsylvania and Warren and Hunterdon counties in New Jersey. Dedicated to advancing medical education, St. Luke’s is the preeminent teaching hospital in central-eastern Pennsylvania. In partnership with Temple University, St. Luke’s created the region’s first and only regional medical school campus. It also operates the nation’s longest continuously operating School of Nursing, established in 1884, and 28 fully accredited graduate medical educational programs with 226 residents and fellows. St. Luke’s is the only health care system in central-eastern Pennsylvania to earn Medicare’s five-star rating (the highest) for quality, efficiency and patient satisfaction. In 2018, St. Luke’s was named a Top Hospital in the Teaching Hospital category by the Leapfrog Group. It has repeatedly earned the 100 Top Major Teaching Hospital designation from IBM Watson Health (formerly Truven Health Analytics) – six times total and four years in a row including 2018. It has also been cited by IBM Watson Health as a 50 Top Cardiovascular Program. Utilizing the EPIC electronic medical record (EMR) system for both inpatient and outpatient services, the Network is a multi-year recipient of the Most Wired award recognizing the breadth of the SLUHN’s information technology applications such as telehealth, online scheduling and online pricing information. St. Luke’s is also recognized as one of the state’s lowest cost providers.