April 17, 2017

Healing through art and science

“There are those of us who have been challenged. And there are those of us who have yet to be challenged.”

— Stephen Weiss, MD, former Kaiser Permanente physician

Stephen Weiss, MD, who was a Kaiser Permanente physician for 23 years, spent a month at Kaiser Foundation Rehabilitation Center in 2004, recovering from a traumatic brain injury and stroke he sustained after a serious biking accident. Previously in the business of healing others, Dr. Weiss found himself struggling to manage even simple physical and mental tasks. Creating art, he says, played a huge role in his recovery.

“I found myself having to do everything with intent, to work so hard on focusing and understanding to control my movements and my thoughts,” he said. He turned to landscape photography because the focus it required was one of the ways he could quiet his brain. “For years after the accident I had trouble filtering out ambient noise and visual busy-ness. Photography created a place for my eye to rest.”

photo of colorful trees
"Sara's Trees," photograph by Stephen Weiss, MD.

Dr. Weiss’s photo, “Sara’s Trees,” taken in Napa, California, is on display at the KFRC, along with the artwork of many other former patients, caregivers and staff. At the center, they believe in the power of healing through art.

Located within the Kaiser Permanente Vallejo Medical Center in California, the center has treated people with disabling conditions such as strokes and brain or spinal cord injuries for over 60 years. More than 100,000 patients and their families and caregivers have benefited from the center's care. It was one of the first rehabilitation centers in the country and is recognized nationally and internationally as a center of excellence.

Art was part of the vision

Displaying patient’s art was an integral part of the vision when designing the KFRC. “It’s a very important part of the program,” said Director Michelle Camicia, “because it inspires our patients and their families who are going through what may be the most difficult time of their lives. The art also inspires our amazing and talented staff, who come here every day to deliver the expert care that provides hope and understanding.”

Meredith Cooke-Young, a retired KFRC occupational therapist and potter who was part of the original KFRC team, created the “Clay Tile Project," one of the center’s first art projects. The program continues to provide inspiration because each tile tells a person’s unique story.

“When I became an occupational therapist, I wanted to incorporate my clay and art into my job,” said Cooke-Young. “Clay tiles seemed like a perfect way for patients to explore art and the project was a natural fit for the new center.”

She creates squares of wet clay, which surprises many people who haven’t worked with clay since they were kids. “Almost everyone claimed not to be artistic or creative, but they all created amazing and beautiful tiles,” she says.

Elizabeth Sandel, MD, former KFRC medical director and chief of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, was part of the team who pushed for patient art being an integral part of KFRC’s original design.

“Most people who aren’t in a coma or in a state of unconsciousness are capable of producing art. It’s just a matter of tapping in to that ability,” she said. “That’s the concept that we have in rehabilitation, helping people to utilize their ability rather than dwelling on their disability.”

If you visit the center, you’re likely to discover Mia, a 3-foot tall, vividly painted rabbit created by Ellen Håkensen Faris, a graphic designer and painter. During a visit, Faris lights up the room with bright pink pants, a vibrant orange sweater, and accessories to tie it all together. She started painting 10 years ago when her husband passed away.

colorful rabbit sculpture
Mia the rabbit.

“Colors are what you need for your soul, to feel good,” she said. She created Mia as part of a project commissioned by the Vacaville Art Museum, and Kaiser Permanente purchased the piece at an auction. “Having Mia at the center is very special for me because this is where my husband spent his last month before he died.”

An unclenched fist

Another artist whose work is on display is Mario Scharmer, a former KFRC patient who sustained a traumatic brain injury during a car wreck in 2002. He was at the center with his mother Christine, who shared the story of her son’s incredible recovery. Initially not expected to live, he is thriving today and, through ongoing therapy, continues to improve his motor and verbal skills. Art is a driving force in his healing. His mother, who helped interpret Mario’s comments, said that his art “provides hope and inspiration, and helps him to spread his love so everyone can see and feel his love.”

Two of Scharmer’s paintings are displayed in the KFRC’s brain trauma ward, where he did most of his rehabilitation. One features an open hand, which is a common theme in his art because being able to unclench his fist represented a serious breakthrough in his rehabilitation.

In addition to having walls covered with art, the center offers a peaceful outdoor area filled with greenery and natural light. It’s somewhere you could read a book, relax in the sun, or have a nice conversation with family, friends or colleagues. But it’s also a functional therapy area where patients learn to walk on different surfaces, practice getting in and out of a car, and more.

“You don’t expect to find a lot of beauty in a hospital setting,” said Dr. Weiss, who praises director Camicia for creating an environment where art gives a sense of optimism and beauty. “Michelle lifted me out of a very dark place by appreciating my art and displaying it at the center. Her support and inspiration was an enormous part of my healing.”