Art Part of Healing, Design at UCSF Medical Center

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With the opening of the $1.5 billion UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay earlier this year came hundreds of art installations throughout and outside the facility’s three buildings. Complementing the pieces installed in lobbies, terraces, atriums, elevator bays and outdoor plazas, the center offers art therapy programs for patients occupying the nearly 300 hospital beds.

Using art as a healing tool isn’t new to the medical center, which serves children, women and cancer patients. Before its February 1 opening at the foot of 16th and Third streets, UCSF hospitals offered Art for Recovery and Child Life Services at the Mount Zion and Parnassus campuses. These programs continue to be available at the new facility.

According to Child Life Services specialist Michael Towne, offering art is crucial for youngsters dealing with life-altering diseases, conditions and procedures. “We want them to be children,” he said. A creative outlet is an important way for young patients to understand what’s happening to them, and to make the situation less traumatizing, Towne said.

UCSF relies on San Francisco Unified School District teachers, as well as internal staff and independent creative art instructors, to provide music and art therapy. Amid pieces on display from artists from around the world, Towne proudly pointed out patient artwork installed in the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital lobby. “It’s really powerful for them,” Towne said about the young artists, “when they are not just recognized as patients.”

The lobby artwork consists of an interactive exhibit that features light and polarizing lenses; clues to its Exploratorium origins. The science museum worked with patients to create the piece. It’s just one of six “patient-generated” galleries scattered throughout the medical center. “We want the environment to be creative, stimulating and dynamic,” Towne said.

The Exploratorium collaborated for two years to design and create 17 exhibits, which have been installed for permanent display, museum spokeswoman Maria Zilberman said. The effort was funded by the Foundation.

When working with five-year-old and older children, Suzanne Yau, a staff art therapist, said she focuses on group work, but also makes bedside visits for individual art therapy sessions. Some of her artists aren’t strong enough to leave their rooms, or have restricted visitors due to immunity issues. “Sometimes they are too weak or are too tired to do anything,” she said.

Yau encourages her artists to display art in their rooms, eliminating the stark blank walls ubiquitous in hospital rooms. “If I can just bring a moment of happiness and joy it’s worth it,” said Yau, who has a master’s in art therapy from Notre Dame de Namur University. Yau inspires her teenage clients to find the silver lining of their illness; while at UCSF they have an opportunity to find their inner poet, painter, photography or filmmaker.

Union City resident Akshay Sharma, 19-years-old, was diagnosed with bone cancer last June. Over the winter he recuperated from a successful surgery to save his leg. Before his procedure Akshay had been engaged in filmmaking. Supported by the art and therapy program, during his treatment he directed and produced a fictional film, with equipment and tools provided by UCSF. He even got doctors and medical staff to play roles. “Sometimes it didn’t feel like I was here for chemo, but for making a movie,” he said. He’s headed to the University of California, Davis this fall, where he plans to study pre-med.

Yau said patients like Akshay are able to produce art portfolios by the time they’re discharged. Kids have fun during short-term stays as well, she said. “In a hospital everything is chaotic and out of control,” she said, which is the inspiration behind “box” projects. Children make worry, wish and me boxes as a way to express themselves, release pent-up emotions in a methodical way, and create a sense of normalcy. Yau is continually impressed with how empathetic and supportive the teens are with one another.

“Nothing is more important to creating a caring environment than art,” said UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, at the hospitals’ opening ceremony. With $550 million raised as of the beginning of the year, the medical center was able to create a space filled with public art, colorful displays and plenty to look at in waiting rooms and corridors.

San Francisco philanthropist and UCSF fundraiser Diane “Dede” Wilsey recounted the experience of visiting her late husband at the older UCSF campus. Now, she said, if you have to be in a hospital, the design and artwork is “really wonderful and really thoughtful.” Compared to many hospital walls, she said, “someone took the time to think about how you would feel” in the new space.

According to Cindy Lima, UCSF Mission Bay Hospitals Project executive director, the goal was to “create a true healing environment.” To make that happen she said planners looked to world-renowned, local, and artists already at the hospitals: the patients.