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A healing presence: Naj Wikoff weaves the arts into medicine

If you choose to be an artist, says Naj Wikoff, director of the Healing and the Arts program of DMS's Koop Institute, "your job is to uplift the human spirit." A sculptor himself, Wikoff believes art should be not only in "pristine places" such as museums, but a vital part of community life. For the past several years, Wikoff has made it his mission to bring the arts into the lives of people suffering from illness and disease and to promote wellness through the arts in the community at large.

Wellness: Wikoff's accomplishments were recently recognized with his election as president of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare (SAH), an international organization based in Washington, D.C.

While the idea that art can contribute to healing is hardly new, the formal integration of the arts into health-care settings —at least in Western countries —is a fairly recent innovation. The SAH, whose purpose is to promote "the incorporation of the arts as an integral component of health care," was established just 10 years ago.

Naj Wikoff, director of the Healing and the Arts program, fosters creative activity among all of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center's constituencies.

Wikoff says SAH members include doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, artists, and art therapists from the United States as well as Canada, Europe, and Asia. The organization's major activity, an annual conference, was held this year in Providence, R.I., where Dartmouth's C. Everett Koop, M.D., gave the keynote address. The SAH also organizes traveling exhibitions, such as a current display of quilts representing medicinal plants and herbs.

Not surprisingly, the arts are gaining a stronger foothold in medicine as technological advances and time constraints impinge on the doctor-patient relationship. "Health care is very hard on patients and health-care professionals alike," Wikoff says. "Doctors and nurses do not have the time to give the more personal attention the patients desire and need—and that the health-care professional desires to give and needs as well."

Venture: Before coming to Dartmouth in 1992, Wikoff was director of arts and productions at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, a position that afforded ample opportunity to see what happens when the arts venture beyond "pristine places." In New York, he worked with choreographers, composers, visual artists, and writers who brought the arts into the lives of people with AIDS, the homeless, gang members, and others. "I saw the arts literally help turn around and extend lives," Wikoff says.

Although Wikoff arrived at Dartmouth as director of programming of the Hopkins Center for the Arts, he found himself increasingly interested in the nascent C. Everett Koop Institute and its possibilities for forging connections between the arts and society. By 1993, he was a member of the Koop Institute's staff. Today, Wikoff coordinates programs for Dartmouth undergraduates as well as all members of the DHMC community, including patients, faculty, and DMS students.

"In med school," Wikoff says, "students are driven to absorb a tremendous amount of information, and they do not have a lot of time to nurture balance in their lives." To help them find balance and creative outlets, Wikoff works with Joseph O'Donnell, M.D., to develop DMS electives in the arts and humanities, including classes in drawing, yoga, creative writing, and improvisation. A Literature and Medicine course is offered to fourth-years. A popular elective called Creativity involves work on a creative project over an extended period of time; Wikoff says students have written plays, composed music, choreographed dances, and made ceramic bowls, coffee tables, snowshoes, movies, and Web sites. (See page 44 for the results of one student's Creativity project.)

Collaboration: ArtCare, a program for undergraduates—primarily premeds and those in the arts—brings students together with patients and their families through weekly arts projects at DHMC. (See the box on page 9 for details of one recent ArtCare project.) These students "learn to see patients as people and not as a disease," Wikoff says, citing the example of an undergraduate who made a tapestry with an elderly patient dying of cancer. The patient was initially reluctant to participate, recalls Wikoff. In a kind but persistent way, the young student drew out the patient. As the student worked on a handloom at the patient's bedside, the two gradually began to collaborate. The patient suggested colors and motifs; the student wove as directed. "It was a strong bonding experience for both," Wikoff says, and a powerful example of how the arts can give patients a respite from pain and worry.

ArtCare students also participate —along with medical students, doctors, nurses, patients, and administrators—in the monthly noontime "Poetry and Prose" series at DHMC. At these events, often attended by as many as 150 people, participants share their short stories, poems, plays, and other creative endeavors. Wikoff sees the series as another opportunity to build community while contemplating health and doctoring.

"What is unique about all these activities is the amount of collaboration between different elements [of our medical community]," he says. "This interweaving of the medical school, undergraduate school, and hospital . . . puts Dartmouth at the leading edge of integrating the arts into healing."

Visible: In his own art, which he describes as "rather outrageous sculptures," Wikoff makes his work accessible, not to mention highly visible. Intrigued by the shape and motion of tall ships, Wikoff has constructed a series of tall-ship sculptures using power poles for masts and bright banner nylon for sails. The first one, 112 feet tall, was erected in Wisconsin, where, he says, "it looked as if it were sailing on a great, green ocean."

It is the sense of joy and expansiveness found in Wikoff's sculptures that can transform the experience of healthcare. "To me, the arts are but one of many arrows in a doctor's quiver," Wikoff says. "They are not about curing, but can be used effectively to support the process of healing, to enhance communication, to improve patient satisfaction, to build community. . . . We need the arts to enrich the process of healing."

Catherine Tudish

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