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A Nationally Recognized Richmond Collaboration Aims to Train Nurses Through Art 

click to enlarge Nursing students from Virginia Commonwealth University stand in the atrium of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts next to “Rotating Sphere,” a sculpture by Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro.

Ash Daniel

Nursing students from Virginia Commonwealth University stand in the atrium of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts next to “Rotating Sphere,” a sculpture by Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro.

Afternoon sun pours through a 40-foot glass wall, lighting an atrium where nearly 100 nursing students are standing.

An operation is underway at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. But you won’t see any scalpels, syringes or forceps. This procedure relies on only one tool: art.

The Art of Nursing is a collaborative program between the museum and Virginia Commonwealth University. It invites nursing students to consider how perception plays a crucial role in patient care.

As hospitals gear up to become techno playgrounds, more doctors are remotely monitoring patients, and then delivering orders to waiting nurses. Being able to see something an absent doctor can’t — or even second-guessing a co-worker — might make the difference between cure and misdiagnosis. And training to become a nurse involves getting of out of your own way by overcoming personal biases.

“The goal is not to just relay what you see, but to become aware of the limits of your seeing,” says Sara Wilson McKay, chairwoman of VCU’s art education department.

Dozens of schools are catching on to the synergy between two disparate fields. But the museum and the university have been at the forefront, starting with their collaboration in 2011. In June, the Art of Nursing program was recognized at a national conference held by the Museum of Modern Art

Each session, aspiring art educators coach small groups of budding nurses, who learn about their individual blind spots. The method feels deeply personal and refreshing at a time when universities are moving toward impersonal technologies.

“It’s great to see you guys ready to dive in, especially after the call and response days you’ve been going through,” Ashley Schleeper tells the group.

The 30-year-old arts education student is leading 10 junior-year nursing students on this Thursday. She’s also playing the optimist because her students have just come from one of their first bedside trials at a hospital — which started promptly at 6:45 a.m.

Student Matt Londrey arrives from the hospital bearing a dozen Carytown Cupcakes. The pink box attracts more than a few glazed stares from classmates.

These initial hospital visits are no joke for nursing novices. Londrey says his patient was crying out in pain at the slightest touch. But Schleeper has plans for a hike upstairs to the modern and contemporary art department. Students will be treating another anguished patient: the wrecked car painted by John Salt in his 1971 photorealistic work, “Pontiac in a Deserted Lot.”

As some students audibly describe the scene, others stand facing away from the painting, making a drawing based on what they hear. Even though Salt projected a photo onto his canvas and then painted a photorealistic Pontiac, there’s disagreement about how to go about sketching a faithful copy. Much of this is like diagnosing a patient, the students say, as they unpack their reasoning. McKay, the art education department chairwoman, says this is how students develop “meta-cognitive awareness.”

“So can we see the front of the car?” Londrey asks, his box of cupcakes abandoned in the corner.

“Uh … yes,” replies Jonathan Carter, peering at a grill that’s twisted in several directions.

“And penny-sized headlights,” adds Sarah Daniel, noticing the scale of her classmate’s drawing.

“No, dime-sized,” asserts Carter, whose arms are crossed.

“Dime?” Daniel says skeptically.

Londrey draws a small headlight in pencil. No one blinks. The circle remains. Even when disagreement sometimes results, these and similar activities succeed at restoring the senses. Suddenly, the students appear to have been revived.

In the world of health care, the risk of compassion fatigue is an oft-discussed topic. Nurses disproportionately succumb to it because of their frequent contact with patients. But clinical psychology says that feelings of openness and aesthetics are intimately tied together. Art offers a soothing antidote to conscientious personalities driven by order and efficiency.

Indeed, several studies have shown that aesthetic breaks can increase compassion and patient satisfaction. That’s why the VCU Medical Center has installed oases for nurses called Watson rooms, which feature calming music and color therapy.

So the next time you hit a stress wall, maybe take a hit of Monet.

“This museum offers downtime from such a serious environment, but it still allows nurses to reflect on their hospital experience,” says Carley Lovell, the clinical assistant professor who oversees the Art of Nursing. “Art really creates a lot of organic connections back to the hospital setting that you can’t necessarily predict.”

Museum director Alex Nyerges says the program has changed VMFA, too — especially its interaction with visitors. “It goes beyond the passivity of, ‘He was born, he painted, he died,’” Nyerges says. “It’s an open-ended dialogue.”

The small group of nurses seems to be in good spirits as they complete a final exercise in the museum’s sculpture garden.

Dionne Bridgeforth, a registered nurse, arrives to provide a mentoring moment. She makes an impromptu speech about how giving care requires self-care. Students nod quietly in agreement while gathering their belongings. Then everything falls silent except for the water jets gurgling along the promenade. The afternoon ends inside this splashing chorus, but there will be more patients to see tomorrow. S

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