An unconventional Saskatoon program is helping six-year-old Syrian refugee Mahmud Alcheikh heal from the trauma of the Syrian civil war.
Once a week, he sits around a large table in a small room at Queen Elizabeth School with his siblings Zeina, 9, Janna, 10, Abdulwhab, 12, and Mohamed Alcheikh, 13. The children draw the new contours of their lives away from war, coloured pens in hand.
Signs of trauma
Nathan Allen loves the colour blue.
His T-shirt is blue, the blanket wrapped around his knees is blue, and his eyes, bright under his baseball cap, are blue.
But blue is also a feeling, and after spending months undergoing near-daily dialysis at the Hospital for Sick Children, who could blame an 11-year-old for feeling a bit down?
Nathan was referred to the hospital’s new on-staff art therapist to help him cope with his emotions. And when Jennifer Bassin came to visit recently week with her case of supplies, he chose the colour blue to start on a sculpture of a car.
“Shocking,” jokes his mom, Judy Chapman.
Nathan was diagnosed with a bilateral Wilms’ tumour, a rare cancer of the kidneys mostly affecting children, at age 5. He started chemo and radiation and had a partial nephrectomy in both kidneys. His left kidney never worked properly again, and after almost five years of remission, cancer returned to his right kidney.
Now he undergoes chemo once every three weeks and dialysis five days a week. That’s a lot of poking and prodding for an 11-year-old who would prefer to be playing defence on the Georgina Blaze novice hockey team and cuddling his 3-year-old beagle, Daisy, at home in Keswick, Ont.
After three more chemo treatments, Nathan can go home. His parents are training to do at-home dialysis and counting down the days until Nathan can receive a new kidney. His mom is praying she can eventually donate one of her own.
Until then, he looks forward to his weekly sessions with Bassin. She visits during the two-and-a-half-hour dialysis process, and they paint or sculpt while the machine whirs in the background.
“It absorbs some of the time,” Nathan says. “I like to build stuff.”
Bassin has brought something called a 3Doodler — a cross between a hot glue gun and a tiny 3D printer, which can make plastic sculptures. This day, after he makes the car, she asks Nathan to make something that resembles his idea of cancer.
“A big, black, blob,” he says.
Nathan is an outpatient but most of Bassin’s patients are long-term in-patients at Sick Kids who have chronic illnesses, complex medical histories or have faced traumatic injuries.
Since the program started in May, she does art therapy just two days a week and sees between four and eight children aged 4 to 18. Psychiatric patients have benefited from art therapy at Sick Kids in the past, but this is the first year the new program, which is entirely funded by donations, has been extended to medical patients.
“Art therapy is taking the language children already speak and meeting them at that level,” Bassin said. “You don’t have to be good at art to participate in art therapy. It doesn’t have to be about the painting or about the drawing. It’s more about finding something they enjoy that we can use as a tool to explore how they’re feeling.”
One patient, who had recently been in a traumatic boat accident, sculpted a vessel out of clay — and then smashed it against the wall in a moment of catharsis. Some enjoy the physicality of painting big murals, and some like to rip up what they’ve drawn. Another drew a landscape so she could imagine herself outside the hospital, at a picnic.
“When you create something outside of you, you can really treat it like it’s at a distance, and it makes it safer for us to explore a little bit.”
Making art helps young patients take back some control in their lives, if only for an hour. Some patients are content with their creation, and others want to delve deeper into their feelings, Bassin says.
Nathan’s family hopes he can go home in late September, when he can rejoin his classmates in Grade 6 and go back to being an annoying older brother to his sister Emma, 7. He’s still quiet, but less withdrawn after a session, his mom says.
As he paints a mask green, with blue lips and black eyes, Bassin asks Nathan if he has a plan.
“Nope,” he says. “Just going step by step.”
The fear and anxiety associated with an asthma attack can last long after the attack has subsided. Now research, published online in the Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology, reports that the art therapy showed benefits both during the therapy and for months afterward. “Asthma impacts not only a child’s physical well-being but also has a considerable effect on a child’s quality of life and psychological development,” said Anya Beebe, MA, an art therapist at National Jewish Health. “Our study shows that art therapy for children with severe, chronic asthma is clearly beneficial. Our results were striking and persisted for months after treatment stopped.”
In art therapy, patients create artwork that helps express their feelings about an illness, a trauma or medical concerns. The artwork can then serve as a starting point for discussions about these issues. Researchers believe that creating art helps participants establish distance between themselves and their medical concerns. They learn to understand that they have a personal identity outside of their illness. It is believed to be particularly effective with children because they often do not have the adult capabilities to verbally articulate their emotions, perceptions, or beliefs, and often can more comfortably convey ideas in ways other than talking.
You can read more at the National Jewish Health website.