TRACY’S KIDS ART THERAPY PROGRAM
 
Thursday, September 30, 2010

By: Tracy Councill, MA, ATR-BC

Background
Tracy’s Kids employs six art therapists in four treatment centers, helping patients with cancer and blood disorders cope with the emotional stress and trauma of illness and treatment. Art therapy is built into the treatment setting, engaging young patients, their siblings, and parents in creative work that helps them express feelings and reflect on their treatment experiences. Based on the work begun by Tracy Councill in 1991 at the Georgetown  University Hospital’s Lombardi Cancer Center, the programs feature a child-centered, open studio approach that gives young clients the chance to take control through the creative process at a time when their lives often seem to spin out of control.

Councill’s work at Lombardi grew out of a second-year internship, where part of her time was spent in the Pediatric Hematology-Oncology clinic. Patients and families engaged readily in art therapy, finding it normalizing and grounding in the unfamiliar and alienating environment of medicine. In 1991, Councill was invited to help write a grant to pay for an art therapist at the clinic where she had interned. The Prevent Cancer Foundation funded the grant, and Tracy’s Kids was for many years a program of Prevent Cancer. In 2009 Tracy’s Kids became a freestanding nonprofit organization, supporting art therapy programs at Georgetown University Hospital’s Lombardi Cancer Center, Children’s National Medical Center, the Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders of Northern Virginia, and Inova/Fairfax Hospital’s Life with Cancer program.

The growth of Tracy’s Kids is due largely to the efforts of Matt Gerson, a successful Washington, DC attorney, who is himself a childhood cancer survivor. He became interested in the program in 1997, joined the Board of Prevent Cancer to raise money for the program, and encouraged expansion from the original location at Georgetown to other centers in the DC metro
area.

Approach
Art therapy in medicine differs from art therapy in psychiatric treatment primarily in its setting. To be effective, the art therapist must find ways to engage patients where they are. Most of the time, if patients had to make additional appointments and incur the expense of private therapy, they would not be able to participate. Creating an open art therapy studio in a clinic or infusion center changes the focus of the patient’s experience. Children focus on coming to the clinic to create art and spend time with the art therapists and their new friends. Parents relax and talk with other parents, meet with the oncologists or social workers, or engage in their own art therapy alongside their children.

Though chemotherapy is increasingly administered on an outpatient basis, many patients must spend prolonged periods of time in protective isolation in the hospital. A child may spend months at a time confined to a hospital room, and visitors may be required to wear paper gowns and gloves to prevent them from bringing germs into the patient’s room. Though the art therapists must take special care to provide new and clean art materials, and work wearing protective clothing, the opportunity to work creatively and be heard by an art therapist is profoundly helpful to a young person in isolation.

The art therapists not only encourage and facilitate the art process, they listen for themes to emerge in the work. As members of the treatment team, they are aware of the details of each child’s diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment plan. Metaphoric expression arises spontaneously from the children’s imaginations. Children are able to support and encourage each other. The art therapists are able to recognize themes, concerns, and needs because they are both actively listening to the patients and partners in the treatment team. One of the dimensions of art therapy in this setting is its ability to help build community.

Value
Art therapy in medicine offers young people the opportunity to see themselves not as passive patients, but active partners in the work of getting well. Providing tools to cope with the pain and isolation they must endure, process scary and potentially traumatizing medical experiences, and safely express a range of feelings they may have about their treatment gives these children a voice in this often bewildering medical environment. Doctors and nurses may
not understand the child’s point of view. Medical terminology may create unnecessarily confusing and fearful expectations in children, and often the art therapy process brings these misunderstandings to light.

Opportunities to exhibit work within the clinic, hospital, and even outside venues (always with appropriate permission and release) give young patients the chance to tell their stories and connect with the world outside the hospital. As a grant-funded program, Tracy’s Kids, from its inception, needed to create opportunities for donors to see the impact of the program without intruding on the treatment process.

The purpose of these shows has grown to include educating the broader community about the power of art therapy. In 2007-08, Tracy’s Kids organized an International Art Exchange, collecting work from pediatric hematology-oncology patients in all the Tracy’s Kids programs and five Middle-Eastern countries on the theme “The Day I Will Never Forget.” The collection of 207 pictures and stories premiered in Washington, DC in 2008, was shown at the NIH and Dublin, Ireland in 2009, and is presently touring the treatment centers in the Middle East that contributed work. The virtual show is also on the Tracy’s Kids web site, www.tracyskids.org, in the gallery section. For the past two years, Carroll Square Gallery at 975 F. St., NW in Washington, DC has hosted a Tracy’s Kids art exhibit during the month of December, providing even greater opportunities for outreach on behalf of the patients and families and the profession of art therapy.

Tracy’s Kids has grown through good luck, focused reflection, hard work, and perseverance, from a one-person program to a nonprofit organization that supports six art therapists serving hundreds of young people in four treatment centers. It is our hope to continue to contribute to the field of art therapy through innovative clinical work, training art therapy graduate students, writing, and research on the impact of art therapy in medicine.