How art therapy helped one young hospital patient thrive.
I meet five-year-old Cara Smith in the fall of 2015. She takes her seat at a table in the hospital’s art room, eager to begin working.
Before her are two white masquerade-style masks and a large sheet of paper. These are her canvases. In addition, Cara has roughly two dozen colors to work with.
Cara likes to draw, sculpt with Play-Doh and paint at least once a day. Some days she splatters paint on paper, and other days she puts paint on the page using syringes that used to hold her medicine.
Today, though, her art therapist, Cassie Dobbs, brought something different. “I promised her masks,” Dobbs says. “And she does not forget anything you say.”
Cara decides the masks are for her and her mother. She hasn’t seen her mom, Angela Smith, for a few days, and misses her. The masks will be a present for mom when she visits the next day.
Most of the art therapy room at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis where Cara works looks like a typical children’s playroom: a toy kitchen setup sits along a wall, with wooden train track nearby. And plastic bins filled with toys are stacked throughout the room.
But the art therapy room also features sinks, computer monitors and hand sanitizer stations. And next to Cara is an IV stand, holding several monitors and medicine bags.
Nurse Shelby Dillon, Cara Smith and Art Therapist Cassie Dobbs. Photo by Tom Lange
Cara has been at Riley for just over two weeks and is being treated for a rare condition called aplastic anemia, caused by a rare virus, HHV-6.
Fifteen days ago, she received a bone marrow transplant, which came after four days of intense chemotherapy that killed off her immune system and bone marrow. The new bone marrow came from one of her sisters, and in a few weeks, about a month before Christmas, doctors will tell Cara’s family that she’s healthy enough to go home. Her parents will then spend the first half of 2016 waiting to see if their daughter’s body can simultaneously accept the new bone marrow while also generating enough white blood cells to fight off infections.
So far, so good.
“Each day, week, month that goes by, the better off [she’ll be],” Mark Smith, her father, says.
So while Cara waits in the hospital, she paints and talks with Dobbs. These painting sessions give the five-year-old time doing something she loves and are also an outlet for the stress that comes with battling a life-threatening illness.
“I think it lets her forget,” her father says. “Reminds her of home.”
Art therapy programs such as Riley’s give younger patients a break from their treatments, getting them out of their rooms. But they also give the children a chance to express emotions that they don’t have words for yet.
Dobbs, who has a master’s degree in counseling and art therapy, is one of two art therapists at Riley. Typically, she has a caseload of 12 patients, though lately it’s been closer to 18. Riley admitted more than 1,300 patients in 2014, and each year Dobbs works with thousands of kids as they pass in and out of the hospital.
When Dobbs works with Cara and other patients, it’s a safe place. There is no medicine and there are no shots in the art therapy room. Cara can paint without talking, or talk without painting — however she feels.
“You can make a mess. That’s what we’re here for.”
– Cassie Dobbs, art therapist
Painting masks for herself and her mother is one of the ways Cara can deal with missing her mother, who trades shifts watching Cara with her husband. The Smith family is from Avilla, which is in the northern part of Indiana and close to a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Indianapolis.
Cara seems shy when talking to someone for the first time, as though she’s sizing them up. But she seems more than comfortable and content as she talks with Dobbs while she works.
“This [mask] is mine. This one is Mommy’s,” Cara says. “I like Mommy.”
“I like your mom too,” Dobbs replies.
“Because she’s nice!”
Dobbs also tries to incorporate kids’ treatments into their therapy and projects. That’s why Cara and other patients can use spent syringes that used to carry medicine to spread paint on paper. The point is for it to be cathartic, Dobbs explains.
“You can make a mess,” she says. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Photo by Tom Lange
Mark Smith is also grateful that the program allows his daughter to continue exploring an interest in art that she first discovered in preschool.
“Anything to keep her busy,” he says.
Art therapy programs such as Riley’s are becoming more common, though they aren’t found in every children’s hospital. Funding Riley’s program means paying for supplies as well as the salaries and benefits of its two full-time art therapists. That cost totals $150,000 annually, and the hospital pays for it entirely through donations, according to Dobbs.
At least one of those donors is a former Riley patient, who knows how helpful art therapy can be.
Every other month, a fresh supply of art supplies arrives at Riley through a program called Emma’s Art Cart. The supplies are donated through a group created by a former patient and her art teacher and are put into art kits that kids too sick to leave their beds can use.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the generosity of other people,” she says.
Parents can also visit arttherapy.org if they’re interested in finding an art therapy program or therapist for their child, Dobbs says.
Photo by Tom Lange
One hour into the day’s art session, Cara has finished painting the masks and is eager to try hers on, though Dobbs suggests she let it dry first. She’s also shown no signs of tiring and is ready to move on to the next project.
Luckily, Dobbs is game.
“Okay,” she says, “what do you want to do next?”
Cara at home with her family today. Courtesy of Angela Smith.
UPDATE: Though Cara has had to lie low while her immune system recovers, as of June 1, 2016, her new bone marrow is doing exactly what it needs to do. The Smith family is happy to report that she is doing well and recovering beautifully.