The art room: A place to feel normal


Shocked by her breast cancer diagnosis, Annie Gottesman considered rejecting lifesaving treatments at every point along the journey. Enter Sarah Colby, the compassionate artist who helped Gottesman work through the difficult emotions and thoughts that overwhelmed her.

Colby is the charismatic force behind the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Arts + Healthcare Program. The only full-time staff member, Colby runs the program with the assistance of volunteers and interns.

"I was going through the throes of terror when I was introduced to Sarah," Gottesman says. "If it hadn't been for the art room and Sarah, I would not have been able to get through my surgeries and treatments."

Gottesman is just one of the many patients who have been helped by the program, which employs art as part of the healing process, providing patients, their family and stressed hospital staff members with diversion, respite, beauty, humor and empowerment. 

Referrals like Gottesman come from team members such as nurses, social workers, chaplains, psychologists and physicians. The program, which receives about a dozen patient referrals each week, offers craft, writing and music projects, and services throughout the BJH campus. It is physically based in an art room located on the 13th floor of the Center for Advanced Medicine. 

This welcoming, cheerful space is a kaleidoscope of colorful materials: fabric, yarn, construction paper, markers and even origami cranes. A unique oasis, the art room serves as both an active hive of creativity and a relaxing haven for patients and their family members needing a break from the tedium of treatment.

"It's a pretty special place," says Colby.

Typically six to eight visitors use the art room daily, with numerous others stopping by primarily to chat with Colby, who has that special kind of warmth that makes anyone want to pour out their heart to her.

"Sarah is nurturing and accepting, and I could share anything with her, knowing she would help me make sense of it," Gottesman says. "People immediately feel embraced by her. She makes you feel normal while at the same time acknowledging what you're going through."

The program, which was launched in 2007 with Colby, a trained artist, at its helm, is able to continue, thanks to donations to The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

As part of her art therapy, Gottesman created a fabric, doll-like figure shaped to look like a cross between a person and a cancer cell, or a person being invaded by a cancer cell. Made of dark swatches of material, the doll allowed Gottesman to express her dread of the radiation treatments that followed her two surgeries.

"It's not cute and cuddly," Gottesman says. "It's disturbing and threatening, but I took it with me every day to radiation treatments as a symbol of the struggle. It was the process of creating it, and talking through this awful, scary experience with Sarah, that was so therapeutic."

Once she was past radiation, Gottesman began working on a new doll with Colby.

It's bright pink.

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