a woman in a yellow skirt paints a green abstract painting
Category: Health Magazine, Winter 2023

Title:Hands-on healing

Author: By Gabrielle Barone
Date Published: December 1, 2022

How Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center uses art for cura personalis

A typical day in the studio finds Aida Murad, the current artist-in-residence exhibitor at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, up to her elbows in paint—literally. After a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis left her temporarily unable to move her fingers or hold a paintbrush, the artist persevered by using her hands to apply paint to the canvas. The method opened Murad to a transformative healing experience, and she has continued to paint this way ever since.

Healing through art is a key value of Georgetown Lombardi, which aims to care for the whole person physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Cura personalis extends beyond the patients to their whole network of families, health care providers, and visitors.

Murad’s paintings were installed at the cancer center in September 2022 as part of the Lombardi Arts & Humanities Program, established over 30 years ago to promote care of the whole person through music, visual arts, expressive writing, and dance. This year’s artist-in-residency exhibition by Murad, sponsored and envisioned by a former patient, is just one of many arts programs that Lombardi offers.

“Our basic premise in the beginning was to take art to the patients and the staff and the students and the medical providers, and infuse their days with creativity,” says Julia Langley, director of the Lombardi Arts and Humanities Program and an instructor at the School of Medicine.

Over the years, through philanthropic support, the program has expanded to offer a variety of art opportunities, including stretch breaks, collages, beadwork, poetry, narrative writing, and live music.

Musicians play in the cancer care waiting area and visit patients in their rooms at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

Langley notes that beyond the musical performance, the program is about relationship building. “The musicians have this wonderful ability to intuit what kind of music patients might need. Sometimes patients are able to discuss their preferences, and they have a really meaningful connection, which often ends with them talking for hours. If a patient is nonverbal, the musicians check the monitors and look at blood pressure, heart rate, and breath rate, and observe how the patient responds to the music. Sometimes they’re tapping their fingers or moving their feet, and then the musicians know that they are communicating with the patient.”

Aida Murad

Technology has opened new opportunities, too. Musicians now venture into rooms via iPad to play songs and interact with patients in a COVID-19-safe way, and art classes are offered online. Many of the attendees, Langley says, are actually based in areas other than Washington, D.C., across many different states and countries.

Bringing arts into the patient areas at Georgetown Lombardi offers people a contemplative respite from the sometimes overwhelming concerns they may experience in cancer care. Whether it’s a cello and hammered dulcimer duet in the lobby, an artist at a craft table with supplies for anyone to explore, or the calming, inviting, colorful works of Murad on the surrounding walls, the goal is to create an environment of care and well-being that appeals to the senses.

Langley believes having rotating, ever-changing art exhibitions is particularly important since people may come back for treatment or monitoring over a period of years or decades. “We want patients to see different facets of the clinic and how it continually evolves,” Langley says.

“From what we’ve heard, people really appreciate coming into Lombardi and seeing different works of art. They feel comforted by the fact that there’s lots of color and it’s clear that somebody cares about the space.”

“Beyond adding art to the walls, I’m excited about giving this deep sense of belonging.”

– Ami Aronson

Creativity and cura personalis

Murad also aims to offer that sense of care and compassion in her work.

“What Aida’s bringing is this soft, floating, flowing sensibility,” Langley says. “And I think the canvases are full of depth and breadth and possibility, which we really need these days.”

Noting that “it’s very easy” to connect the arts to cura personalis, Langley says that “the whole point of what the Lombardi Arts and Humanities Program is trying to do is to apply non- pharmacologic therapies to not only patients, but everyone in the hospital, because especially right now, everyone’s hurting.”

Creating an environment of positive, healing energy is a large part of Murad’s own artistic process, and also what she focuses on in her career as a spiritual artist, bringing in reiki and meditation to her creative undertakings.

She paints layer by layer, working on multiple projects at a time, to get in the right headspace for each painting.

Murad also brings this intention to her art process, allowing the tone of the painting to determine how, where, when, and in what atmosphere she creates it.

She knows firsthand the impact that art can have in soothing a stressful process, as her headphones gave her a lot of comfort after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

A woman in a yellow skirt looks at a painting
Aida Murad contemplates her next project / Photo: Lisa Helfert

“What kept me sane during that time was my headphones, because music was my escape,” Murad says. “It was also my protection. It reminded me that there’s still life, still color. Unfortunately there was no real visual art in the hospitals that I went to. So now with my second chance at a healthy life, I aim to create a healing and nourishing experience that I wished I had. I try to connect the art that I do with what patients are seeking.”

Bringing this mentality to her work, she created one piece that was all about fun, even if it didn’t fit with traditional expectations of art found in a hospital.

“Each painting represents a different intention, from the lightness of the sun to the struggle of climbing a mountain,” Murad says. “But one is about fun. That’s what people need also, to remember there’s still fun out there to experience.”

Art and admiration

Cancer survivor Ami Aronson took this philosophy, and Murad’s practice of art’s healing qualities, to heart during and after her treatment of Stage 3 melanoma. Working with the Lombardi Arts & Humanities Program, she wanted to bring Murad’s work to the walls of the cancer center at Georgetown.

“For cancer care, Georgetown is the embodiment of everything I was looking for,” Aronson says. “Cancer isn’t just a physical disease—it’s complex. And we need to be in a place where we feel safe. Here at Georgetown I feel safe and loved and treated with the best care. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”

She took comfort in her local connections to Georgetown: her brother was born at the hospital, and her father went to undergraduate and medical school here. “I never thought I’d go to Georgetown for a cancer journey, but honestly, I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”

During the treatment process, Aronson also connected with her doctor, Michael Atkins, M.D., over their shared interest in art and photography.

Atkins’ creative, indefatigable approach to his work resonated with Aronson. “It just reminds you that an environment like Georgetown is a petri dish of learning and innovation and imagination,” Aronson says. “Not only does it reflect the caliber of talent that Georgetown attracts, but it reminds you that beyond treating the body, there’s a show of dignity.”

Two women with paint on their hands hug in an art studio
Philanthropist and cancer survivor Ami Aronson (facing) collaborated with artist Aida Murad on this piece. / Photo: Lisa Helfert

After her remission, Aronson began thinking of a lifelong goal: climbing up Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was a goal that suddenly went from dream to reality when a friend called, wanting to know if she was interested in climbing with an all-female team she was putting together.

Aronson agreed to join the group, and on top of that, she decided to use her climbing campaign as a way to crowdfund Georgetown Lombardi’s artist-in-residency, in honor of how the program contributed to her continued healing.

“Having cancer during the pandemic, there was so much uncertainty, so much mental paralysis, spiritual paralysis. What better way to galvanize, inspire, and lead by example?” She hoped to add more art to the center, and show support to others going through the same difficult experience she went through.

“Each painting represents a different intention, from the lightness of the sun to the struggle of climbing a mountain.”

– Aida Murad

“Beyond adding art to the walls, I’m excited about giving this deep sense of belonging,” says Aronson. “Any cancer patient and I understand that need, and 18,000 cancer patients come through those doors every year. Imagine if the art could be an embrace, a welcome, a comfort, a feeling of belonging and also unity, because Aida’s work isn’t just one piece of art. It’s a companion series, and a reminder that as we go through cancer, it’s very personal, yet we’re not alone.”

Aronson is pleased to contribute to the atmosphere of healing at Georgetown Lombardi. She had years of experience in donor giving, and had met Murad and seen her work. The idea of the Georgetown Lombardi Artist-in-Residency with Murad eventually fell into place.

“Art is really important to me,” Aronson says. “As we navigate our way through a curious, complicated world with so much uncertainty, it’s nice to feel like we belong somewhere and Georgetown Lombardi is a place where everyone belongs.”

Thanks to exponential support, the climbing campaign raised over $100,000, more than five times the original goal. “I had never felt more loved in my entire life,” Aronson says, and it served as a reminder that “sometimes the most painful things can be the most purposeful things.”

“To me, this art is a single exhibit, but may it elevate the best practice of what it means to integrate art and science. There may be no perfect way to measure the impact, but I hope it gives cancer patients hope, inspiration, and a deep sense of calm for those moments of quiet reflection.”

Aronson also hopes the residency and climbing campaign will inspire others to support the center.

“This is an invitation to join us in integrating the arts in supporting and celebrating all that Georgetown has to offer. I can’t say enough good things about Georgetown, and I plan to spend the rest of my life supporting this program.”

Murad is also focused on offering support through her art.

She recognizes that there’s a lot of things to balance when creating art for people who are in such a vulnerable place. “You want to create art that helps people feel safe, courageous, hopeful, but calm at the same time. This has been such a humbling project.”

Jane Varner Malhotra contributed to this article.

A woman in a yellow skirt paints
Aida Murad in her studio / Photo: Lisa Helfert

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