UNC Hospitals using iPads, art to treat children

Jan. 31, 2012 12:45 pm

Rather than using an iPad to read magazines, surf the web or play Angry Birds, art therapists Ginger Poole and Bridget Pemberton-Smith created a project that uses art apps to help treat children in the pediatric oncology ward at UNC Hospitals.

Why iPads?

Apple’s iPad is easy to use, so patients can spend more time creating art and talking about it than learning how to use a program, Poole said.

“IPads are a sterile way to create art,” said Hillary Rubesin, community relations manager of the North Carolina Art Therapy Institute. Instead of bringing new materials to each session, art therapists sanitize the iPad after each child uses it.

The institute is currently using three iPads, but is configuring nine more it received in December from the Raleigh-based nonprofit organization, Striving For More, Inc.

Many children with a high risk of infection cannot leave their rooms to participate in regular art therapy groups, so Pemberton-Smith uses iPads to take the therapy to them.

“Kids are all growing up with this technology. They’re all attuned to it.” Pemberton-Smith added. “They’re really excited about it.”

How it works

Pemberton-Smith goes to the hospital three mornings a week.

“Sometimes I see the kids in the playroom. Sometimes they’re getting treatment,” she said. “Sometimes I just walk around with them. Their creativity amazes me.”

“Art therapy uses visual arts primarily as a means to perform mental health counseling,” Rubesin explained.

“Sometimes traditional verbal psychotherapies restrict clients’ ways of expressing themselves,” Rubesin said. “The therapeutic arts allow for other ways to express what’s going on inside.”

The institute recently got a small printer to keep at the hospital so the art therapists can print the children’s art and give it to them.

Jessica Irven, a recreational therapist at the North Carolina Children’s Hospital, worked closely with Pemberton-Smith and Poole to start the project. She called the project a “well-received new aspect of the clinic.”

She said the children have come to expect Pemberton-Smith’s presence and “actively seek that opportunity out because they have something to look forward to.”

The iPad project is helping many children overcome the negative stereotype they have of going to the doctor, Irven said.

Sometimes they play with the iPads while undergoing medical procedures, he added.  The familiar routine helps decrease stress, Irven said.

Project roots

Poole approached Pemberton-Smith about starting a digital art therapy project at UNC Hospitals a year and a half ago.  The hospital was supportive but unable to supply funding.

But the project found new life after learning of the David Turner Lymphoma Foundation, Inc., also known as “Big Dave’s Big Gift.”

Before he died of lymphoma, David Turner of Collinsville, Va., started a foundation with money he had planned to use for a transplant.  That money now helps others in similar situations.

“He was thinking of others in the last few weeks of his life,” said Suzanne Turner, the foundation’s president and David Turner’s mother.

Suzanne Turner was drawn to the iPad project because it weds the two things her son loved — technology and art.

During his last year, her son started recording rap music. “He was a computer nerd, but a very cool one,” she said.

One of Turner’s favorite memories is of her son playing self-composed rap songs to a small group of hospital personnel huddled around his laptop.

“I just know that sharing [his songs] gave him so much joy,” she said.

Turner wants others to experience that joy.  She sees art as a way for patients to define themselves outside the context of their disease.

“I just know that everyone has gifts and talents and we’re happier and healthier when we share them,” she said.

Looking ahead

Several other foundations, including the Mary Claire Satterly Foundation, now also financially support the iPad project.

Pemberton-Smith hopes UNC Hospitals will eventually employ a full-time art therapist.  “I would love to see other kids with other illnesses be able to use and get benefits from art therapy.”

Besides the iPad project, the Art Therapy Institute also caters to exceptional needs children at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City schools and to refugees from Burma.

Therapists also work in community centers, nursing homes and the “Brushes with Life” program at UNC Hospitals.

The institute will highlight the iPad project at its annual “I Heart Art” benefit Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012 at Motorco Music Hall in Durham.  Tickets are $10-$25 and can be purchased through the institute’s website.

This article was reported as a part of the JOMC 256 Features course at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.