Healing the heart with music and art

New UCLA program aims to reduce boredom and loneliness of monthslong hospitalizations

When Sharon Wilkinson House is not volunteering at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center with her therapy dog, Pinky, she is helping heart transplant patients create art projects during their sometimes monthslong hospitalization while they anxiously wait for a life-saving donor heart.

Ryan Thomas, a UCLA graduate student in music, performs gentle songs on his guitar for this same group of cardiac patients at the hospital. Sometimes, he can coax patients to sing along. Occasionally, Thomas and patients will compose lyrics and create original songs together. Patients have crafted covers of famous songs and tweaked the lyrics of "Proud Mary" to “Strolling in a Wheelchair” and “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” to “Sitting in the Hospital Bed.”

With a master's degree in art, Sharon Wilkinson House shares her love of art-making with cardiac patients.

Thomas and House are two of the dedicated volunteers skilled in music and art in the hospital's new Heal My HeART program. They are helping relieve the boredom and loneliness that inevitably set in during a long hospital stay. Besides helping cardiac patients pass the time, the program provides a creative outlet that allows them to express their feelings and help them regain physical and emotional health with a new sense of optimism. 

“A prolonged hospitalization while waiting for a life-saving organ is an emotional and stressful journey,” says Dr. Martin Cadeiras, an assistant clinical professor of cardiology at UCLA, who created the program along with a group of UCLA students, medical professionals and patients who have gone through heart transplantation. “Heal My HeART provides patients with the opportunity to escape the reality of heart disease and transplantation through art.”

House, who has an undergraduate degree from UCLA and a master’s degree in art, brings pastels, colored pencils, craft projects and collage materials to patients' rooms. Initially, some patients are apprehensive because they think they have to have artistic talent to participate. She encourages them to have just fun and play with the materials. The act of sitting and creating art together is healing and helps patients focus on an activity that does not involve thinking about the heart transplant, she says.  

“We have been able to expand the program beyond art, thanks to volunteers who bring their musical talents to the patient’s bedside,” adds Charlotte Starling, a Marymount University student who is one the program’s founding volunteers.  

The hospital is looking for more volunteers with an appreciation of and experience in teaching art, music and creative writing to join the program. Organizers would like to expand it to serve patients waiting for other organ transplants.

“This program is consistent with the UCLA Health’s vision of healing humankind one patient at a time by improving health, alleviating suffering and delivering acts of kindness,” adds Anthony Chan, nursing director of the cardiac care unit. 

Heal My HeART volunteers must be registered through UCLA Health’s volunteer department. To learn more, contact Sandra Molina, volunteer coordinator, at [email protected].

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