Tapping into art's therapeutic power; Volunteer artists offer creative outlet to U of A hospital patients

BY ALEX MIGDAL, EDMONTON JOURNAL AUGUST 31, 2013

  Poet Shirley Serviss visits University of Alberta Hospital patient Lillian Geddes as part of the hospital's Artists on the Wards program.    Photo Credit: Ed Kaiser/Edmonton Journal

Poet Shirley Serviss visits University of Alberta Hospital patient Lillian Geddes as part of the hospital's Artists on the Wards program.

Photo Credit: Ed Kaiser/Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON -- Lillian Geddes wants to write a love letter to her husband, a gift on the occasion of their 47th wedding anniversary. But finding the words to sum up a life time together seems somehow insurmountable, the memories too many.

Shirley Serviss thinks otherwise. On a bright August afternoon, the two women sit in the indoor courtyard of the University of Alberta Hospital, knees touching, collaborating on a poem. Pen in hand, Serviss asks Geddes to describe her husband.

"Well, he's a very gentle person," says Geddes, her voice trembling. "He does lots of things that most men wouldn't want to do."

Her breathing is laboured; the defect that compromises her body's ability to clear mucus from her lungs means she must be on oxygen.Now 66, she's been waiting two years for a lung transplant, much of it in the hospital.

During that time, Serviss has become a companion of sorts, and a welcome source of support.

Serviss is a poet, and a member of the hospital's Artists on the Wards program.Serviss and her fellow artisans - among them a musician, an illustrator and a visual artist-over see 30 volunteer artists who engage patients throughout

the hospital, offering them a creative outlet and a welcome distraction from their illness. Studies show that arts in clinical settings not only ease stress levels of patients, it improves their quality of life.

"It really helps to get that kind of support," says Geddes of the program.

Geddes says Serviss helped her pen a poem for her niece once, too, a writing feat the poet dismisses with a smile and a shrug.

"You always give me such good lines," Serviss insists. "All I do is cobble them together and turn the minto a poem."

Serviss finds the words that her patients can't voice.

Remnants of her rhymes are scrawled on white boards in waiting rooms:"July Rain: The sudden storm/flashes and rumbles /the ozone air a tonic /for the humid afternoon."

She once worked with a patient who suffered horribly through treatment. At his lowest point, he told Serviss, "I just want to see Edmonton in my rear-view mirror."The line struck her so deeply that she wrote him a blues song using the line as the refrain, so that"he felt heard and not just brushed off."

As she rolls her cart through the hospital hallways, the rainbow flower attached to the front spins. She thinks of it as her "prayer wheel, sending good vibes into the

atmosphere." Patients often stop her to chat, to ask her how she's doing. Even when faced with the inevitable bad day, she says, there are so many smiles it's hard not to feel happy.

Still, there are heart-stopping moments, too,she says, times when she holds her breath as she enters a patient's room, wondering if they'll still be there. There can be sadness in the work she does. And sometimes there is death. When that happens, she gives herself

permission to avoid the patient's unit for a time.

Serviss often gives journals to her patients so they can brainstorm and write. She says it distracts them from the illness, the stress, the loss.

"Because poetry cuts to the chase, it cuts through a lot. I think it speaks to the soul."

  Bev Ross, a member of the Artists on the Wards program at the U of A Hospital, plays her harp in the hospital    Photo Credit: John Lucas/Edmonton Journal

Bev Ross, a member of the Artists on the Wards program at the U of A Hospital, plays her harp in the hospital

Photo Credit: John Lucas/Edmonton Journal

Another of Serviss's patients, Lyn Fisher, 53, has waited three months in the hospital for a heart transplant.

They first met a month ago, when the two brain stormed ideas for a poem.

"I don't think of my sickness when I'm with her," Fisher says.

"It takes me away just focusing on the conversation. It's a warm feeling when she comes and I feel cold when she leaves."

Her room is decorated with small water colour images of pandas and irises.She's been working with the staff illustrator for a few hours each week.

Fisher proudly points to a water colour painting of an iris. Having only dealt with oils and acrylics, she's amazed by her new skill. Careful splashes of purple bloom on the page.

During their first conversation,Fisher told Serviss about growing up with dyslexia. She came to school every day having forgotten what she had learned the day before. Serviss has titled the poem The Blank Page. She starts reading: "Lyn went to school, obeyed the rules, and listened well in class. Each day she faced a windy race to avoid a pity pass."

Fisher smiles as she listens, her eyes misty with nostalgia. "I love it,"she says when Serviss finishes. "Do you have a copy for me?" Serviss signs the poem and hands her the copy. "I was so struck by the image of the

blank page you were talking about," she says to her. "You have so much wisdom to share. That's what I was trying to say in the poem."

Like Geddes, Fisher isn't sure when she'll under go her transplant. She's been told three months, six months, a year.The future wavers with uncertainty.But the art is always there, brightening her present and her past.

"All these gifts are good keepsakes for me and good memories I can take when I leave," Fisher says, holding the poem against her chest. "These little gifts, these pleasures-that's what they are."