At Smilow, healing through art

The Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale includes an art collection of over 700 pieces that are intended to promote healing, comfort and relief.
The Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale includes an art collection of over 700 pieces that are intended to promote healing, comfort and relief. Photo by Sari Levy.

The Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale treats its patients through more than just clinicians and medical equipment — it also heals them through its artwork.

Smilow, which was recently listed at No. 35 in a U.S. News and World Report ranking of the 900 best cancer hospitals in the United States, boasts a large art collection. Named “The Art of Healing,” the collection includes over 700 pieces of art and has been a part of Smilow since the building’s opening in October 2009. Roughly one year before, clinicians, patients and art consultants began a collaborative process to ensure that each piece in the collection was selected specifically to promote healing, comfort and relief in patients and their families. This emphasis on the role of design in health care facilities has made Smilow a pioneer in what has become a national trend in recent years.

“Many health care facilities just clog up the walls with art,” said Abe Lopman, senior vice president of Smilow. “Smilow took a leading, cutting-edge role in this regard.”

Smilow’s architectural and administrative divisions consulted Rosalyn Cama, president and principle interior designer of Cama Inc., on the types of artwork that would create a therapeutic atmosphere, while administrators like Lopman supervised the financial aspects of the project. Cama said hospital administrators’ goal was to create an environment that reduces stress and anxiety in patients and their families.

Cama explained that much of the artwork depicts scenes of nature because these themes trigger memories of different places around the world, which distracts patients from the pain of their illnesses. Elaine Poggi, founder of the international Foundation for Photo/Art in Hospitals, also emphasized the important role nature plays in hospital art, noting its ability to lessen depression and relieve stress. She added that photographs of flowers, mountains and the hills of Tuscany are the most commonly purchased items from her foundation.

Lopman said Smilow sees art as an essential piece of the healing environment, though also acknowledged that not every hospital agrees with this view. But many institutions have begun to realize that the consequences of ignoring the patient environment are not as harmless as one may expect. Poggi recalled speaking with a woman suffering from depression who experienced a feeling of darkness and despair whenever she was in a hospital waiting room, and felt that her condition was actually worsening because of it. Physician in Chief Thomas Lynch ’82 MED ’86 said Smilow has focused on creating a nurturing and welcoming atmosphere so patients would not feel uncomfortable.

“Patients tell me how warm it makes them feel, [and] how they feel they are entering a place that is not like a sterile hospital,” Lynch said.

While the amount of scientific data on art’s therapeutic effects has greatly increased over the past decade, individual patient testimonials continue to be influential in the realm of hospital artwork. Lopman said a committee was formed during the art selection process to offer suggestions to Cama, and noted that the largest group within the committee was patients. Cama said these patients’ suggestions led to the inclusion of “conversation-starting” artifacts from around the world at Smilow. She explained that one patient had told her about the exhaustion and solitude that patients feel in hospitals, noting how such feelings only go away when patients begin to connect with each other. Poggi, whose foundation has provided photographs to over 200 facilities across six continents, was inspired to dedicate herself to hospital art after seeing the comforting effects of nature photographs on her mother, who was hospitalized for three months.

Clinicians, administrators and artists involved in creating the collection said that to this day, they are still receiving consistently high amounts of positive feedback about the artwork from patients and their families.

“Based on patients’ responses, we realize that the artwork at Smilow has made a major contribution to how people are feeling when they are in the building,” Lopman said.

“The Art of Healing” is the third largest permanent art collection in Connecticut.

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