By Valley Burke, RN, CCRN
I was born with severe myopia and was legally blind. I wasn’t able to see the world clearly until age 5. As a result, I began to draw as soon as I could hold a pencil and learned to see the world through my imagination. This is the main reason I have pursued art.
My experience as a critical care RN in the cardiac surgery ICU at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, Manhattan, helped me learn about the relationship between the ancient healing arts and contemporary medical sciences through the fine arts. I’m able to reinterpret medicine’s visual elements — X-rays, images of pharmaceuticals, EKGs, MRIs, CT scans, echocardiograms and cardiac catheterization — into an artistic language that explores the relationship between body and spirit. In my artwork, inner and outer elements of the human body are consciously interwoven to express my understanding that the mind and body are not separate; the colors and shapes I use are deliberately blended to illustrate interconnection and interdependence.
Making a difference
In 2003, I donated paintings to Hospice By The Sea in Boca Raton, Fla. I had completed an internship there during my last semester of nursing school and was very moved by the experience. There was so much beauty at the center, including a bird sanctuary with a large skylight and views of nature from patients’ rooms. There was a powerful aesthetic presence that created a spiritual and healing atmosphere. I wanted to contribute to this invigorating climate. This is where the idea of art in hospitals started for me. Over the years, I have donated paintings to hospitals; nurses and physicians in New York, including Mount Sinai; and to the American Heart Association.
The feedback I have received shows patients and staff have been affected by my work. My artwork has inspired nurses to work on their own creative projects. Also, nurses have spoken to me of how the beauty helped them get through a shift or helped them cope with the loss of a patient. Nurses at Mount Sinai have described how my painting of a flower merged into a heart started a dialogue about art with their patients and helped nurses relate art to patient care or medicine. Patients expressed that the painting gave them the feeling that their hearts will soon heal; they said they felt a life force in the image that was uplifting and inspiring. Others have said the soothing colors and soft forms I incorporate have provided a sense of comfort.
As a patient, painting and drawing provided an invaluable outlet wherein I was able to go beyond the pain, nausea, fear, grief and sadness. Our bodies must be cared for, but the ineffable within us also must be nourished. Art feeds our spirit and our soul.
In the darkness of suffering, nurses can bring light to their patients. Chaos theory says a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can eventually cause a hurricane on the coast of Australia. The same is true in nursing. The smallest acts of kindness and compassion in your daily practice can change a patient’s life. Nurses who are exhausted and feel depleted will have difficulty being there for patients. But having a creative outlet is a powerful way to refuel yourself; it can be deeply fulfilling and restorative for nurses. This is my experience both as a nurse working in a hospital and as a patient.
A good way to encourage this process is to create a sacred space in your environment. If possible, dedicate a room and in this space, do what nourishes you. It can be writing, music, meditation, yoga, painting, drawing, sculpting or anything that uplifts your spirit. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell said, a place where you can, “follow your bliss.” When we follow our bliss we are helping to bring beauty into the world.
It is my fervent wish that hospitals will one day regain their mythic origins and fully develop into centers of education, healing and wellness. I believe the presence of fine art inside hospitals is a catalyst for this transformation. I also feel the holistic implications of modern physics will powerfully impact the advancements of Western Medicine. When mind and body are seen as interconnected, our abilities to visualize and imagine wellness will exponentially improve.
Valley Burke, RN, CCRN, is an artist and has an art studio in Brooklyn, N.Y. She was a critical care nurse for 10 years. See more of her work at ValleyBurke.com.
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