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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 January, 2004, 01:13 GMT
NHS Stories: How art is helping to heal
Art work
Art helps children express themselves
As part of a series of articles BBC News Online reporter Jane Elliott looks behind the scenes of the NHS.

This week she finds out about how art can be used to heal.

Carl and Alice were 16 and deeply in love.

But unlike most teenagers the couple faced more difficulties than most - both had cystic fibrosis.

Carl had chosen to have palliative care and Alice was preparing for her heart and lung transplant.


When Carl died, Alice became withdrawn and unable to relate to others.

But staff at the Chelsea Children's Hospital School found that the troubled teenager could relate to art.

I am not afraid to die

Jeanette Steel, head teacher, explained that introducing Alice to Roberto Lagnado, a story teller, enabled Alice to open up and express her feelings for the first time.

"Roberto Lagnado took her, along with others, to Dulwich Art Gallery and told the story of the painting of Lady Digby, commissioned by her husband after she was dead.

"For the first time Alice was able to ask questions and talk about the physical body after death.

"She described rooms at the hospital where she saw Carl and felt the presence of the dead.

"She could say for the first time that she saw the ghost of Carl and said 'I am not afraid to die or of his spirit. I know he is alright'."


Others used the hospital's art programme to help them cope with bullying, their hospital experiences and their medical conditions.

Jeanette said: "We have a big range of arts in the hospitals and they can help the children develop their emotional intelligence.

"The children we see have a variety of things to deal with from loosing their hair after chemotherapy, to burns or the effects of steroids.

"By using art to express themselves they can come to terms with these.

"We had one boy who came into the hospital school with a smashed leg. He'd had an accident and his leg was smashed up. He had wanted to become a footballer, but now he was never going to.

"He did an art and drama course and now wants to do art instead.

"It is all about developing their skills and giving them the confidence to develop themselves through art."

The hospital school is based across four sites at the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Trust, The Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, Collingham Gardens Child and Family Mental Health Unit and the Cheyne Centre.

As well as dealing with the long-term sick, the hospital school also works with children with mental health problems.


Jeanette said she had found that these children also responded well to art.

"We had this one young lad who was psychotic and he wrote this wonderful poem.

"He said his life was incredibly difficult and that all he wanted was to build his life again and to get a second chance."

The poetry section of the arts programme was also particularly popular with the cerebral palsy patients, who responded well to its lilting tones.

Jeanette said another benefit of art in hospital was to ensure that children, even those in isolation, get the chance to work together.

"These children have said that being in isolation is like being a leper, but we have joint art projects so that every child can feel part of the community.

"We have them doing one big piece such as a quilt or a tapestry or a collage. So that they can still be together even when they are in isolation."

Dr Geoffrey Farrer-Brown, chairman of the trustees of the charity 'A picture of Health', which uses art to demystify medicine for the public, said the art helped children, like one patient Sam, cope with their illnesses.

"Sam is very familiar with hospital life as he has had over 20 operations.

"His sister Megan has a serious heart condition and he has been with her and his mother in hospital for the last eight months.

"Sam has learnt to 'stick with things' through the making of his sculptures which almost fell apart.

"He was delighted with the final result and completing his work lifted his mood."

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