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Rose Verney, Art Therapist

This diary was written in March 2020

08:00 I get off the bus with dozens of others at the Churchill Hospital, walk over to Sobell, say hi to colleagues, open up the art room and get it ready for the day. It’s gleaming – our lovely Housekeeper, Connie, has given it a thorough scrub, and has somehow managed to clean all the paint off the tables. I’m also pleased to see that the door leading onto the courtyard has been mended, so I can bring patients over from reception that way, which is always nice.

08:15 I head to the day services handover meeting, which is a chance to find out who’s coming in that day, what their needs are, and who could potentially benefit from art therapy.

8:30 I meet with my first patient, Wendy*. Art therapy sessions generally last an hour, and there will usually be a mixture of talking and using art materials. People use the time in enormously different ways – sometimes a person may already have an idea of what they want, for example revisiting something they remember doing years ago, such as painting in watercolours. Someone else may come in saying ‘I’m no good at art’, and I will explain that there’s no need to be – anyone can use paint or pens or clay to express something. For some people, embarking on a creative therapy can represent a new beginning – even near the end of life, as they may have never held a piece of clay or a crayon, even as a child, and it can happen that this becomes very important, something they look forward to getting back to every week, and which gives them a new sense of their identity, at a time when this can be hugely changed due to the effects of their diagnosis and treatment.

In this session, Wendy chooses to absorb herself in painting, with no particular plan in mind. She mixes colours, tries different brushes, notices how the paint behaves differently on dry or wet paper, or what happens if you use a wax crayon to create areas where the paint won’t take on the paper. She tells me that while she plays with the materials, all the issues, preoccupations and fears that are usually present in her mind float away – she is utterly absorbed in what she’s doing. This represents a kind of respite from anxiety which she says she can’t achieve any other way – she doesn’t sleep well and finds it hard to quieten her thoughts. She also says that while she is in this state of concentration and absorption, her pain is reduced.

10:00 I receive a phone call from reception – a lady has arrived with some boxes of art materials she wants to donate. I thank her, and take the boxes through to the art room to see what’s in them. Gifts like this are hugely welcome and very generous, and sometimes expensive materials such as oil paints are included. I find space for all the new stuff in the cupboards of the art room.

10:30 I spend some time with our art therapy student, Kate*, who is on placement here from her university. She has started to run an art therapy group in the Day Centre, and we discuss the issues arising that she will have to consider – for example, how to accommodate people with limited mobility or particular health needs, and how to run the group successfully in what is essentially an open space, with volunteers coming and going, staff and day service patients milling around, and little privacy. It isn’t easy, and can at times be challenging, but so far she’s doing really well. We discuss what model of group this will be – there are different types of art therapy group, more or less appropriate for particular settings – we go over the pros and cons of each, and eat our packed lunches as we talk. I have received a request for information on her learning and progress from her university, and we spend some time reflecting on how the placement is working out for her, so that I can report back to the course tutors.

13:00 I visit two patients currently on the ward, David* and Margaret*. David has always been a very hands-on, practical person, and is struggling with the changes brought about by his illness – in particular, being unable to do the household maintenance and mending jobs that he has been so skilled at for many years. We have a chat at his bedside, and he tells me he went to an adult evening class in painting years ago, but never had the time to follow it up. I ask if he would like to try a paint box and paper on a tray in bed – he would, but is worried about making a mess. We agree on a small set of watercolour paints, and I fetch them and sit with him as he tries them out. He jokes about not being Picasso, but he is enjoying himself, smiling and relaxed. He says he would like to paint something for his family – perhaps from a family photograph. He says he is loving doing something with his hands again.

My second visit is to Margaret, who I have been seeing as an outpatient, and who has now been admitted for symptom management. She is tired and anxious, and we talk in her room for half an hour or so, before she has a sleep. She would like to come through to the art room and have a session when she is feeling stronger, and continue to work on a clay figure that she began some weeks ago.

14:00 I spend some time making my notes on the computer following these encounters. While I’m there I answer some emails – I’ve had one from someone doing research about arts therapies, and their efficacy in palliative care – would I be willing to meet for a chat? Yes, of course I would – we fix a date for this.

I’ve also had an email referral come in, from a nurse in the community team. I have some space, and follow this up immediately.

Another email is from an artist who would like to show her paintings at Sobell House as part of our changing exhibition in the corridors of the ward – organising these is part of my job. We have a beautifully designed building, with views through to sunny courtyards full of plants, and the interiors are just as important. We hope to provide an environment full of light and visual interest – for patients, families and staff. A meeting is scheduled soon for the Sobell Environment Group – I am looking forward to sharing my ideas as part of making Sobell a welcoming, warm and beautiful place.

Finally, there’s a request from one of our Chaplains, asking if I can contact Rory*, whose father is a patient on the ward, who has asked for support. I go down to the patient’s room to see if Rory is there – we sit in a quiet alcove off the corridor and talk for half an hour or so. There are a number of quite complex issues in the family, and estrangements going back decades. Rory lives abroad, and is unlikely to return, so this is a one-off contact, but he says he is glad to have had the chance to talk.

15:00 Every month, a different department within Sobell host a ‘Tea and Cake’ session for staff members. These sessions provide us with the chance to find out more about what each team does and the role each staff members plays. Today is art therapy’s turn to host – Kate and I do this together. We give the group some activities to do which can be used as warm-ups in an art therapy session, then ask the group to make a drawing all together on a huge piece of paper, on a given theme. I think it went well – the feedback was positive!

16:30 Going home on the bus, I think over the events of the day, and jot down a few reminders for Friday – people to follow up, phone calls, materials to order, and so on. It’s been a full day, and as always fascinating and absorbing, leaving me with much to think about.

*Names have been changed for anonymity.