How an art project gave our patients hope and a community

Gendron Recheche, #Cancer By Ian Cion

For the past five months, I’ve been working with more than 1,300 patients, family members, and staff at MD Anderson to create a monumental scale river dragon sculpture entitled Okoa the Wave Rider. The sculpture, a project made possible by the Arts in Medicine Program, was built entirely on site in the Main Building. You may have seen it on display, or maybe even contributed to it, in The Park.

The name, “Okoa,” was selected through a vote by the patients and families who helped create the dragon. It’s a Swahili word that means “rescue, save, redeem or deliver.”

It’s a fitting name, as Okoa was built to demonstrate the effectiveness of community art in bringing joy and relief into the cancer center.  

The sculpture and the art table where patients, families and staff joined together to make it were actually both works of art. What make the dragon so beautiful are the sculpture and the time shared in its creation, the simple fact that these thousands of people were excited to contribute, to take time out of their day, to stop and laugh and draw or paint, to share their stories with each other around the table.

How we made the dragon
Since its inception in 2010, the Arts in Medicine Program has focused on large-scale, long-term creative collaborations with patients and families undergoing treatment at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital. But this project was the first to bring together patients, families and staff from the entire hospital.
Everyone visiting MD Anderson was invited to participate in a range of art projects that contributed to the dragon.  They did everything from coloring pre-cut dragon scale templates, to painting large format watercolor paintings that were cut and used to make the water, to making and water-coloring paper flowers.  

Patients and family members were encouraged to visit, and our nurses, doctors and child life specialists often brought them to the temporary art studio so they could participate. 

Helping our cancer patients through the Arts and Medicine Program 
The arts have provided many benefits to our patients and their families. MD Anderson has relied on the Arts and Medicine Program to help patients and families reduce pain, stress, and anxiety during treatment; build community around a common activity that is accessible to people of all ages and culture; promote a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and expand a positive connection to the hospital setting.  
    
The Arts in Medicine Program creates art with patients and their families in both individual sessions and in ongoing regular art groups. Pediatric patients and their families are invited to work with the program while in treatment during both inpatient stays and outpatient visits.  

Patients from around the globe come to MD Anderson for treatment, and often stay to receive treatment for long stretches of time. In many cases, pediatric cancer patients and their families come to MD Anderson to participate in the art projects even on days when no other visit is required. The art activities are not only a highlight of their treatment, but of their time in Houston.  

By showcasing the art made in partnership with patients and families, the Arts in Medicine Program helps celebrate the way in which patients and families are truly a part of creating an environment of compassion and caring. The dragon project is no exception.

For me — and I hope all those who participated in its creation — the dragon represents the idea that even in the face of grave danger, there is hope and happiness; that with faith, courage, and love, one can see the beauty and miracle of creation, and see that we are part of something larger soaring through the universe.
Watch this video to learn more about the making of the dragon: 

Ian Cion is program director of the Arts in Medicine Program at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital.

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