JAN. 8, 2016 – A few months into Julia Langley’s tenure as director of the Arts & Humanities Program at Georgetown Lombardi, bags of art supplies began to appear at her desk.

“Bags full of colored pencils, stickers, construction paper, scissors, paint, rulers, pens — you name it — would just show up on my desk,” she said. “And there was always a tag attached to it that said ‘Marge and Bill Allen.’”

Marge Allen, it turned out, was a patient at Georgetown Lombardi.

“Initially I was so traumatized by my diagnosis that I could barely open the door to Lombardi,” she said. “But when I walked in and I saw the Ribbon of Joy and the art everywhere, I realized that someone besides the medical team cared. It was an immediate feeling of comfort.”

To give back to the Arts & Humanities Program, the Allens began donating art supplies. Each time they came to the clinic, they brought new bags of items.

“We felt that we had been taken care of, in terms of more than just our health. So we wanted to give back,” Marge Allen said.

Meanwhile, a group of undergraduate student volunteers had been helping with administrative tasks at Lombardi and were looking for ways to have more meaningful interactions with patients. This past fall, the student group, known as Georgetown University Oncology Patient Support (GU OPS) began leading art projects and activities with patients at Lombardi and Medstar Georgetown University Hospital. They were also recognized as an official student club and, thanks to the Allen family’s generosity, the Allen Activity Cart was created to make distributing activities and supplies to patients more efficient.

The Allen Activity Cart

Langley and Morgan Kulesza, the program coordinator of the Arts & Humanities Program, use the couple’s donations to stock the Allen Activity Cart, which includes expressive writing notebooks, coloring pages, origami paper, puzzles, sudoku, card-making supplies and more. GU OPS volunteers work in shifts, wheeling the cart around to patients and offering to do activities with them.  

“In the big picture, the goal of GU OPS is to improve the patient experience,” said Langley. “Activities including writing and art-making give patients a sense of control, as well as something to do in what can be a very lonely environment.”

When patients in a hospital are constantly monitored, taken for tests and given medications, some feel a loss of personal autonomy. Many patients are happy to take advantage of the activity cart, but it’s just as important that GU OPS provides patients a rare opportunity to say “no.”

“When patients come into the hospital, they don’t have a lot of choices,” said Shannon Glynn, a human sciences major (NHS ‘16) and president of GU OPS. “Sometimes they really appreciate just being able to say ‘no.’ It gives them autonomy.”

Care For The Whole Person

Eleven GU OPS volunteers work in shifts at the hospital on nights and weekends. All are majoring in the sciences and most want to go to medical school.

For many patients, the activity cart staves off boredom. For others, it acts as a distraction from the stress and anxiety associated with being sick.

“Our main goal is to care for the whole person,” said Glynn. “We just think it's really important that undergraduates are exposed to that, especially those who are interested in going into medicine.”

“When you’re ill, your body is out of balance and your mind worries about that, and tries to solve that problem,” said Lauren Kingsland, an artist who works with the Arts & Humanities Program. “By engaging the creative part of ourselves, we can get perspective on our frustrations and anxiety. It brings us into the immediate present.”

Kingsland spent one-on-one time with several of the volunteers when they received initial training for GU OPS, preparing them to work with patients. She focused on art as a tool to care for patients, as well as seeing past the illness to the person underneath.

For many of the volunteers, GU OPS is the first time they are being exposed to patients in a hospital setting, so training and practice is essential. Paul led a training where volunteers role-played different scenarios: what to do if a patient doesn’t want them to leave, or a doctor rushes in during their conversation.

To further prepare students, Kingsland, along with other artists at the Arts & Humanities Program, served as a mentor to the GU OPS volunteers. The mentorship program was offered as an additional opportunity for students who wanted to learn a specific art form such as painting, dance, music, expressive writing and fabric art. “We really saw the benefits of having someone that is hopefully going to medical school partnering with an artist, who can teach ways to approach patients in a more humanistic, holistic way,” said Paul.

Going forward, the mentorship program will be offered once a year. Langley predicted significant growth in the GU OPS program in upcoming years. “There are terrific opportunities here for students to learn firsthand how patients benefit from the integration of the arts into health care,” said Langley. “The wisdom and generosity of Marge and Bill Allen leads the way to improving both the patient and student experience here at Georgetown Lombardi.”

Leigh Ann Renzulli
GUMC Communications