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How hospital patients are finding healing and distraction in visual art

Rosanna paints on a coaster. She hopes to give it as a gift to a family member. Carla Javier/KPCC

Before Heather Dodge was a nurse at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, she studied art.

That's what gave her the idea for the program Healing through Art, which she started on her floor of the hospital about a year and a half ago.

The premise is pretty simple: Dodge buys art supplies like paints, brushes, and canvas. Then, with the help of hospital volunteers, she brings the supplies to patients, and teaches them how to paint.

"I saw an enormous opportunity to bring art to the patients, to give them a distraction from their illness while they're being hospitalized," she explained. "They can be here for days, weeks, even months."

One of those patients is Rosanna. (We're not using her last name to protect her privacy.) She said she never tried painting before, but the first time a volunteer walked in with watercolors, she sat in her bed and painted for a couple of hours.

"It really took my mind off of everything else that was going on with me," she said.

Not only does the program help distract patients like Rosanna, it can even help them feel better. 

It also gives them someone to talk to. Hospital volunteer Jessica Ortiz helped Rosanna paint a coaster as a gift for her brother-in-law.

"We're both just talking, having a conversation, and it was just so calming. You kind of forget the time passing," Ortiz said to Rosanna.

"It is calming," Rosanna responded. "It definitely is."

When they're done, Dodge has a surprise: she's giving Rosanna a set of paints.

"That way, you don't have to wait for us to come give you more paint, you can just get it out whenever you want," Dodge said. 

According to Dodge, the program doesn't stop there. If patients want, they can donate their works of art to the program, and Dodge will give them to patients who will have to spend holidays like Hanukkah and Christmas in the hospital.

She hopes the program will expand to other floors, and to UCLA's other medical campus in Westwood.