catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 5 :: 2008.03.07 — 2008.03.21


Wonder-working power

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Mavis Staples in concert.  One of the sisters in the family that composed the Staple Singers in the 50s and 60s, Mavis was a true delight, both in concert and in conversation.  At 68 years old, she puts on a corporate, full body worship experience unlike any I’ve ever experienced.  Those who know me know that I have, let’s say, ‘issues’ with dancing—not a theological, but a mental and physical block that’s probably some kind of genetic condition.  But at this particular concert, I could not wait to get up out of my seat.  I left breathless, hands red from clapping so hard and so much, so energized I felt as if I could run across the country or swim across the ocean.

Part of my response to her in concert was no doubt inspired by the opportunity to hear an interview with her that afternoon, during which she told many stories of her life as an artist, as a Christian and as an activist.  Her stories about her father Pop Staples were so vivid it was almost as though he were in the room.  In spite of Mavis’ strong will, Pop could always massage her opinions to fit with his vision.  In response to Mavis’ refusal to sing in bars, Pop emphasized their need to bring the gospel to people who wouldn’t usually come to church.  Though her hero Mahalia Jackson wasn’t singing in bars at the time, her will melted in the face of Pop’s good sense.  Another story about Pop concerned the Singers’ plans to tour.  While the Staples family began performing when Mavis was just 13, Pop waited to go on the road full time until Mavis graduated from high school.  However, Mavis had different plans: she was going to go to college for nursing.  “Mavis,” Pop said, “isn’t your singing already healing people?”  In 1957 at the age of 17, Mavis hit the road with the family.

Music as healing—a cynical understanding of this story might see Pop’s reasoning merely as a manipulative ploy to get his headstrong daughter to bend to his will.  However, standing in the crowd that night singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” at the top of my lungs with Mavis Staples, I know that Pop was telling the truth.  Mavis and many, many other artists have offered a healing power no doctor’s office can contain. 

The healing power of art is no new revelation.  Throughout history, human beings have created and shared art even in the most desperate circumstances out of an intuitive sense that creativity sustains us in some way.  This intuition bubbles up in both spontaneous and organized ways, and in today’s North American culture, we even stake one of our highest measures of value, the dollar, in art’s healing power through education and experience.  Unfortunately, while programs for art therapy that use drawing, painting, acting and music to foster emotional and physical healing are popping up at universities across the country, knowledge of the healing power of art doesn’t seem to have trickled down to the thousands of health clinics where most of us receive primary care.

If Mavis Staples’ music was in some way a healing experience for me, it’s a stark contrast to my last visit to the doctor.  One of the side effects of moving twice within four years was that my last doctor’s visit in autumn 2006 was with my third doctor as an official adult woman. I really liked this most recent doctor—she was very cool in a nerdy way and I wonder if outside of the sterility, we might have had a lot in common. I didn't get a chance to tell her I loved her sweater.

But the whole experience left me feeling like there must be a better way to conduct this transaction, which should be very intimate and humanizing, but is all too often impersonal and dehumanizing. The patient was definitely viewed primarily as a consumer: the first thing I did was pay my co-pay, then fill out forms related to information and billing. I sat in one of many uniformly arranged chairs in a fluorescently lit windowless room. Even the plastic clipboard I had to fill out forms on was sponsored by Adderall with a little brain clip for the pen. I didn't even know what Adderall was, but guessed that it had something to do with a blue plastic brain. (I looked up Adderall later. It's for ADHD. Go figure.)  Then I was ushered into a room and treated with as much detached, disposable distance as possible. I was instructed to sit on the crunchy paper covered table, instead of on the nurse's level in one of the chairs, while answering questions about personal medical history. The thermometer I held under my tongue was a disposable piece of cardboard—smart cardboard, but still disposable. There was nowhere to put my clothing except on one of the molded plastic chairs. The discreet "outfit" I had to put on was made of bleached paper, not to mention the layout of the room was such that my bum was exposed to the door even with the "sheet" over my lap. And the covers for the stirrups? Proudly sponsored by Somedrugcompany.

Perhaps I would be the unusual outlier on a consumer preference survey. Perhaps most people prefer as much anonymity and sterility (of all kinds) as possible when they go to the doctor, but I don't think I'm too strange in my desire for more holistic care. I’ve continued to search for that rare doctor who's rebelled against the system aesthetically and economically, but haven’t found the right one yet.  There is a preventative health clinic in my area that practices osteopathic medicine that I will have to try before my last prescription runs out. However, I would hope that the healers of our society would show a willingness to match my efforts.  After my last experience, I used a blog post to brainstorm some ways that doctors and groups within the system could make a few changes that would help alter the patient's experience and downplay the consumer identity.

  • Intentionally craft the waiting room, one in which you'd feel comfortable watching a movie after office hours. Put meaningful, original art on the walls. Create conversation spaces, even if people don't converse. Use natural and incandescent light wherever possible.
  • Give the receptionist an open desk instead of a little window cluttered with garishly colored competing signs about fees and co-pays and insurance. Post one simple sheet with current notices.
  • Politely decline the pens, clipboards, stirrup covers, travel clocks and other branded promotional items offered by door-to-door pharmaceutical sales people. It's not only insulting to patients, it's insulting to doctors as well to be treated as consumers and marketers in their own workplaces. If there's any advertising in the space, make it for local parks, organizations, restaurants and businesses that will contribute to a patient's overall health before he or she needs a prescription medication.
  • Have a small wardrobe in the examination room where patients can store their clothing during an exam. More original art here, too—themes of healing and wholeness and the joy of physicality. Put up the doctor's bio and interests for patients to read while they wait. Use skylights to get natural light into the room. Communicate warmth and relaxation with colors and sounds and light, rather than cool sterility.
  • Use sterile, but re-usable products when possible—a cotton gown, a real thermometer, etc. Surround patients as much as possible with materials that have some kind of natural integrity: cotton, wood, glass, metal, as opposed to plastic, plastic, plastic.
  • Building from the ground up? Emphasize green features that express care for the environment that, in turn, has an effect on our personal physical health. Build on a bike path and have bike racks outside. Build in a walkable area of a town or city.  Use low-VOC paints and natural flooring.

Though only some of these suggestions are directly related to art in the commonly used sense of the word, I think I would say there’s a certain artfulness to everything, meaning that perhaps a family physician could indeed learn something from a Mavis Staples concert or a visit to a local museum or an acting class.  As individuals, we owe it to the health of our bodies and minds to pay attention to what experiences are life-giving, and to reduce for ourselves and for others experiences that are death-dealing.  As caretakers of many, the vocational healers of our society owe it to their communities to strive toward an integrated relationship between the health of the human body and the health of the human spirit. 

Doctors and nurses who are Christian might start with their experience of Holy Week this year.  We observe Holy Week, after all, because of the perpetuation of the art of storytelling, understanding the significance of body and blood only through our capacity to comprehend the symbolism of drama.  How can the artful re-telling of cleansing through suffering, and joy through rebirth that are so central to the Christian vision of wholeness be present in their offices and in their interactions with their patients?  How can they practice resurrection every day by being agents of true healing, rather than perpetuating the structures and systems that make their patients sick in the first place?  Approaching an answer to these questions might just involve a Resurrection Resolution to delve more deeply into what it means to create new life out of dust, whether delivering a baby or shaping clay into a beautiful vessel.

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