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Art class gives medical students new tools for wellness, empathy and fighting burnout

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The painting class, led by local nonprofit organization Art for the Journey, is part of a series of wellness workshops hosted by Project HEART and the School of Medicine's Physician, Patient and Society course.
Photos by Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Marketing

A room of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine students sit nervously in front of their assignment. As they wait for instructions, they inspect the tools they will use, eyeing other students, seeing how they hold the instruments. For more than half the class, it’s the first time they’ve ever performed this kind of work.

It’s unlike any other class they have taken. “There is no quiz. There is no test,” says Steve Sawyer, Ph.D., a retired professor and former vice chair in the VCU Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, as he welcomes students to the class. Then he adds with a knowing look:

“You don’t have to compete with each other.”

The students’ laughter fills the room. They’re not standing at the side of a cadaver waiting their turn to dissect or preparing for their first suture. They’re sitting at an easel contemplating a blank canvas. Their tools are brushes and a palette filled with the colors to paint the Richmond city skyline. For the next two hours, they’re artists.

The mood is light as the students get to work on their paintings, filling the canvas with skies of blue, purple and orange. They’re led by an instructor from Art for the Journey, a Richmond nonprofit dedicated to bringing art to groups as a way to inspire healing and peace. For Ashley Craddock, a third-year medical student, it’s just the change of pace she needed.

“I’m loving it so far,” says Craddock as she paints the skyline and James River. “I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s nice to not be thinking about medicine. Eighty percent of my day is medicine.”

Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Marketing
Click to view slideshow. Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Marketing

That’s the beauty of art, says Melissa Bradner, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health who put together the series of third-year wellness workshops that include the Art for the Journey class. The wellness workshops are the result of a collaboration between Project HEART and the medical school’s Physician, Patient and Society course.

“Physicians and medical students spend their whole life getting A’s and it’s how you define yourself,” says Bradner, adding that the only criteria for the art workshop is that you participate. “You connect with yourself on a completely different level.”

The wellness workshops also include classes in mindfulness training, food and mood, and exercise in medicine.

Painting is a forgiving place.

“It helps to go someplace else for a little while,” says Mary Blumberg, M.D., an internist and pathologist who has painted for 20 years. Along with Sawyer, she spoke to the class about her experiences finding art as a place of well-being. “Painting is a forgiving place. In reality, it can be whatever you want it to be. What matters is what you want. Green sky and pink water? Go for it.”

Turns out, students were hungry for the right-brain experience. The 40-person art class filled within 30 minutes of registration opening.

 

A lasting impact

The Class of 2019’s Joanne Chiao, who is pursuing a dual M.D./M.H.A., completed the Art for the Journey class in 2016. An experiential learner, she says she appreciated the opportunity to learn by doing.

“It was a great experience to do something different and have the opportunity to recharge after a long string of months on the wards,” Chiao says. “You were able to experience well-being and self-care concepts and were more likely to realize the value of these things to our ability to continue caring for our patients.”

At the start of each class, Cynthia Paullin, Art for the Journey’s assistant executive director, details the organization’s work in the community with dementia patients and incarcerated women. Chiao was so inspired by the stories that she contacted Paullin to volunteer with the dementia patients. She has volunteered at two sessions where she was paired with an elder with early onset dementia.

“As a volunteer, I am an assistant to my elder partner’s creative space and provide support of her artistic efforts,” Chiao says. “We do not make any decisions for our partners. We just provide them the space, time and opportunity to be creative.”

Chiao says she has been a dancer most of her life and knows she is a happier person when she makes time for it, a lesson she learned as she studied for the national medical licensing exam. “To me, I cannot take care of my future patients the way they deserve to be taken care of if I do not make sure that I am healthy and happy in my own life. Provider resiliency is critical in our ability to provide high-quality and safe care to the patients that we serve.”

That’s why Bradner’s goal is to expand the art initiative so every medical student can participate.

“Addressing physician burnout is important, especially for these students who were biochemistry majors,” she says. “They’ve had science their whole lives and not necessarily an education that includes art or music. Art is a tremendous outlet to use your brain differently and decompress. For me, art is a way to connect with a different part of myself that is really important to happiness.”

The workshops also include classes in mindfulness training, food and mood, and exercise in medicine — all designed to help medical school students understand the importance of interacting and empathizing with patients, and learning how to take care of themselves as they enter a profession known for high burnout rates.
The workshops also include classes in mindfulness training, food and mood, and exercise in medicine — all designed to help medical school students understand the importance of interacting and empathizing with patients, and learning how to take care of themselves as they enter a profession known for high burnout rates.

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