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Medicine for the Mind

For the past 14 years I’ve combined science with art to engage people of all ages with the beauty and wonder behind medical research, and the hope it brings.  Out of all my public engagement work the most striking and captivating reaction comes from working with adults in oncology wards in University College London Hospital. The most prevalent comment is ‘happy’ as seen from beaming smiles.  I have puzzled for years why I see adults go from being low in energy and mood, to looking so alive and alert.  A possible explanation was presented unexpectedly one day back in 2012.

A nurse bounded up to me, announcing ‘Lizzie there’s a new artist in the ward’, and opened an office to reveal a notice board filled with colourful drawings of cars.  ‘You must go and visit Leonard’.  Most of my work involves approaching adults encouraging them to try something new with objects and ideas to spark the imagination.  It was very unusual to discover a patient already finding their creative side by themselves.

I was led to a side room and met Leonard who was 68 years old, and busy drawing.  I was drawn to the striking sense of pattern and detail in his pictures which he explained were based on memories.  He was inspired by old war films showing vehicles passing.  I wanted to understand if this was something he always did, or if related to being in hospital.  Leonard explained he hadn’t drawn since he was a child, but had an idea and asked nurses for paper and felt-tip pens.  Out of kindness a nurse brought him materials and he started.  He explained at first he wasn’t sure if they were good enough but they cheered up the nurses, and so he kept going.  I asked how he got started and his answer, though apparently obvious became something which utterly fascinated me: Leonard explained after a week in a side-room he was so very bored.

For many of us the last time we admitted to boredom was as children.   I remember being told ‘only boring people get bored’, and learnt to keep quiet.  Boredom helps guide us away from activity not fully using our skills, while encouraging us towards variety and pushing us to learn.  At home or in work we move from one task to another, try something else or go out for a walk. In hospital options are limited.  Even making a cup of tea may not be possible. Leonard was faced with a beautiful view from his window and care, but most of the time he was alone with a grey notice board.  Like many, unable to buy TV or focus on reading.  He could not eat or drink, so lacked highlights of meals.  His circumstances exemplify the lack of options for the mind in hospital.

Leonard was unusual in diagnosing boredom and prescribing his own medicine – to get creative.  He identified a subject rich with meaning.  Through seeing his art, together with colleagues we celebrated whatever your age or how frail you may become, your mind can be healthy.  Leonard showed us his world, and he went from being a patient you could easily walk past to someone we all wanted to visit.  Leonard became our celebrity.

Leonard ended up in hospital for five months, surviving longer than expected.  When drawing he felt ‘fantastic’ and when he stopped he noticed his pains.  It became his full-time job, with felt-tips the tools of his trade.  Leonard dreamt of what to draw and woke up early full of ideas.  Our arts curator organised his first solo exhibition with an opening attended by  family and 20 staff showing their support and thanks. Leonard brought a buzz of conversation about other things, and we celebrated that he discovered his creative side by himself.  He explained it ‘keeps me out of mischief’.  Leonard stopped drawing a few days before a hospice, where it would have been too late for creativity.

After Leonard passed away, we missed him.  From that sense of loss, I wanted to help others and created a pilot idea for an ‘Anti-boredom folder’ with photocopied sheets to maintain and offer.  It is filled with a variety of resources and ideas with suitable challenge and intricacy for adults.  A laminated menu of ‘food for the mind’ whets the appetite.

How has boredom been overlooked?  There are few papers, and I wonder if in an environment where staff are under pressure it is hard to appreciate patients could be bored.  This negative emotional state is associated with frustration, time slowing, lack of hope and low mood.  Described as the ‘unengaged mind seeking engagement’ it seems Leonard suggested an answer to my quest.  I offer that missing engagement, which helps patients realise what they can do, despite everything.  Creativity brings ‘a holiday for the mind’. While Leonard treated himself, others may need a helping hand.

I am currently seeking collaborations with psychologists, social scientists, doctors and artists. Boredom is missing from the patient experience as described by NICE.  What difference could opportunities for engagement make?  There needs to be a wide spectrum of research as to whether combating boredom could affect the patient experience, mood, fatigue, recovery, pain and relations with staff.   Any hospital is a place of waiting, so let’s turn waiting into opportunities, which may help support staff.  For many, last moments of life are experienced in hospital so let there be special moments which embodies the kindness at the heart of a hospital.  Together with research, and collaboration with creative people I hope to help lead a national ‘Anti-boredom Campaign’ to help make a difference. Will you join us?



Acknowledgements: Grateful thanks to the UCH Cancer Fund for funding my work in UCH and my managers in the UCH Macmillan Support and Information Service (Vikky Riley, Dr Hilary Plant and Dr Lallita Carballo), Sandra Paul, Guy Noble, collaborators (Dr Wijnand van Tilburg and Dr Sophie Staniszewska ), and thanks to funding from the Wellcome Trust to work with patients in Oxford Hospitals on ‘Viral Footprints’ with Dr Philippa Matthews and Ruth Charity, to the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics in the University of Oxford, to writer Mike Fox, Wonder Agent, Dr Matt McFall and especially to Leonard and his family for their kind support

Dr Lizzie Burns
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