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Sarah Colby

Patron of the Hearts

As a major health care institution that does extraordinary work, we know that we have to treat the entire person.

Sarah Colby

Donor gifts through The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital support groundbreaking research and advancements, leading-edge medicine, and a happiness-inspiring arts program.

Yes, an arts program—and Sarah Colby is the creative force of that art program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

Arts + Healthcare was jumpstarted in 2006 by a gift from Charles and Bunny Burson to The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Bunny, who helped develop an arts course for medical students at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville and who served as executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities during the Clinton-Gore administration, had a vision for the program and provided insight into what it could become.

Nevertheless, when Sarah was chosen to run the new Arts + Healthcare program in 2007, it was a blank canvas. In the 16 years since the program’s inception, that blank canvas has been stretched and painted into a fantastic collage of creative expression, thanks to continued donor support.

Arts as Health Care

Sarah—who earned an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art and worked in art schools and art centers in New York City, Cincinnati, and St. Louis—realized art programming in a hospital was a whole new adventure.  She got to work by researching similar programs and by collaborating both within the hospital and the St. Louis community.

In the early days of the program, she was asked, “Where is the art?” — so she procured and installed artwork in various buildings of the hospital, including the commissioned portrait of Alvin Goldfarb for Barnes-Jewish College Goldfarb School of Nursing.

But the program was never meant to be about art alone. Instead, Arts + Healthcare is about people. “As a major health care institution that does extraordinary work, we know that we have to treat the entire person,” Sarah says.

And so, through Arts + Healthcare, Sarah provides creative outlets for patients, for their families, and even for hospital staff. Between visual art activities, exhibitions, and regular music programming, over 6,000 people are touched by the program each year.

For staff, Sarah and the Arts + Healthcare program focus on preventing burnout and building resiliency. She is a regular participant in the monthly Compassion Fatigue classes which she fondly refers to as hourlong “art recess.” 

As a member of an amazing team of colleagues, she drives the You Matter cart through the hospital, delivering treats and trinkets to staff. The cart is a mobile space of support, respite, and care for team members from peer team members—a “joyful physical manifestation of recognition and gratitude.”

Sarah credits the staff art sessions with leading to a greater internal understanding of how Arts + Healthcare is health care. “I've gotten to know a lot of colleagues that way," she says. "Then, they understand what the benefit for their own patients could be.”

Sarah creates patient activity kits for long-term patients to help relieve anxiety and boredom. She often individualizes the kits based on patients’ specific interests. She also prescribes activities for patients and their families.

In her weekly antepartum group sessions, moms-to-be knit hats, decorate onesies, and build sock monkeys for their babies. As they create, the moms talk — beyond discussing their hospital stays, they connect with each other as humans. They talk about their families, their pets, and what they miss about being home. Sarah isn’t just facilitating an arts and crafts hour; she’s creating a community among women who can relate to each other when they need it most.

Sometimes, it isn’t just the patients who need her creative distractions. While nurses and physicians often refer Sarah to their patients, the patients occasionally refer Sarah to their families. She fondly remembers a patient who needed a distraction for her anxious husband. When Sarah suggested knitting a hat for his wife, he first brushed her off, but then he followed her to the art room and asked her to teach him.

“He was very gruff about the whole thing, and then he made a hat — the next day it was finished," Sarah says. "He came back down 20 minutes later and said, ‘I need to make another hat for my wife.’ I think he said he made 120 hats. He made them for his kids, he made them for his grandkids, and he made them for his granddaughter’s American Girl doll.

The Art Lady

While the arts and crafts are designed to be fun distractions during serious times of illness and anxiety, Sarah is serious about her role. “With probably 75% of the people I see, we don't sit and make art together," she explains. "It's really about conversation, and it's really about getting to know one another. It’s the act of sitting down and actively listening to somebody share their story. You essentially are being offered a seat at their table, and you are being offered some clear insight into places of great difficulty, as well as deeply spiritual spaces.”

As the sole coordinator of the Arts + Healthcare program who makes connections with hundreds of patients each year, Sarah has made a name for herself around the hospital … but that name isn’t always her name.

Sarah recalls a time when she encountered one of her long-term patients with a relative quickly pushing her wheelchair, “She's screaming at him, 'Stop! Stop! Don't drive by my art lady. That's my art lady!'"

In many cases, her impact lasts longer than a hospital stay. For example, Sarah receives an ornament every Christmas in a box labeled “my art lady” from the grateful partner of a long-term leukemia patient who passed away.

“The possessiveness of that is just so endearing to me," she says, smiling. "It means everything. I wouldn't trade this for anything.”

Arts + Healthcare = Community

Through the years, Sarah has lovingly developed the Arts + Healthcare program into a haven of hope and comfort for patients, their families, and hospital staff.

“The Arts + Healthcare program has become part of the fabric of the hospital,” says Catrece Strickland, executive director of operations at The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital, pun-intended.

On April 24, Sarah accepted the Saint Louis Visionary Award for Outstanding Arts Professional as friends and colleagues within the Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis art communities cheered. Grateful for the support of the Foundation and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Sarah is unwilling to accept full credit for this achievement. “We're all celebrating this together because we built it together. We're all part of it. It's not me. It's us,” she says.

So, if the name of the Arts + Healthcare program is an equation to be solved, the answer is community.
 


 

Words of Gratitude

“I dropped by to thank you for time with you in the art room.  While I haven’t done a lot with the sketchbook, it means so much in terms of representing possibility. [It] got me thinking about art and color again. I went home that day happy, excited – feelings that had been in short supply.” 
– Partner of a Siteman patient

“Thank you for coordinating such fun and creative craft hours. It really gave me something to look forward to each week. It brought a pocket of joy to a monotonous month!” 
– Antepartum Mom

“Thank you for showing up for me, for being so transparent, and just being there. I am glad and blessed you came into my life. Remember – you make and have made a difference in my life.” 
– Acute Medicine unit patient 

“Every time I am admitted, the art room is my first stop!” 
–Oncology (bone marrow transplant) patient

“Making paintings made me forget about how bored and scared I was.” 
– Oncology patient

“Hearing the live music made me know I was in a safe place and that everything was going to be ok.” 
– Orthopedics patient 

“This experience provided a great outlet for all the emotions I have been feeling for the last six months. While I believe deeply in the power of counseling to get through hard times, the more traditional talk therapy groups offered through Siteman weren’t appealing to me at this point in my journey—but the interactive experience that this art therapy provided was the panacea I needed!  In addition to working through my emotions, I also made a friend who understands what I am truly going through. Hopefully, this connection will be a really good thing for both of us, and, as my immune system builds and I can be out of my home more, I look forward to spending time with her. Thank you for all you do to bring the joy of art into the lives of patients and staff to help calm, connect, and heal us all!" 

– Oncology patient who participated in an expressive art support group

“You helped in bringing the artist back out in me. I am so thankful you were put in my path.”

– Oncology patient

“I will never be able to fully thank you for everything you have done for me these past two months. Thank you for always seeing me as a human being first. I will miss our hilarious yet deep conversations and not forget our time together.”   
– Acute Care unit patient

“I am writing to thank you for the live classical music being played for us in the lobby. It is a comfort to hear, which is a positive treatment for us all!”

– Unknown

Written by Maren Leonard Libonn
Photography by Jay Fram
​​​​​​​Photo courtesy of Gail Appleson

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