April 13, 2023

Medical students’ initiative brings artwork to Stallworth

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine students, from left, Sophie Schellhammer, Wyatt Cole and Mike Libre formed a program that brings artwork into the rooms of patients at Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital.
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine students, from left, Sophie Schellhammer, Wyatt Cole and Mike Libre formed a program that brings artwork into the rooms of patients at Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital. (photo by Susan Urmy)

When you’re largely confined to a hospital bed for two months, the world becomes very small.

This was the case for Roy Whitehead, who rehabilitated at Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital following a car wreck that left him with a broken neck and back.

A bright spot during his stay was the day second-year Vanderbilt University School of Medicine student Wyatt Cole showed him the Metro Arts Lending Library catalog and asked if he’d like to choose a piece of art for his room.

Whitehead chose “Mayhem over Nashville” by Rami Singh Bell. Within 48 hours, Cole had checked the piece out online, picked it up from the Madison Branch Library and displayed it in Whitehead’s room. After Whitehead was discharged, he returned it to the library.

“It was the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Whitehead, who lives in Ashland City, Tennessee. “It made me feel like somebody cares besides me. I looked at it, and it makes me feel at ease and at home, which everybody needs.”

The idea of bringing the Metro Arts Lending Library to Stallworth patients started across the aisle of a flight shared by Cole and second-year medical student Mike Libre.

“Wyatt and I got to talking about an incredibly interesting ‘art loan’ program run by Nashville Public Library,” Libre said. “The lending library program has a curated collection made by local artists and gives the public free access to amazing pieces they wouldn’t otherwise be able to acquire themselves. We loved their idea and thought that bringing a similar program to patients could be a great way to improve the quality and experience of an inpatient stay.”

While volunteering at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, before he applied to medical school, Cole experienced the intersection of art and healing firsthand.

“Patients’ rooms feature LED color-changing headboards that children can toggle through as a means of self-expression,” Cole said. “At night, you can see all the windows glowing in different colors in a massive collage. I wanted to see if art could be incorporated at Vanderbilt in a similar fashion.”

Cole and Libre looped in a fellow second-year medical student Sophie Schellhammer and started planning their project in the spring of 2022.

“We spent the first half of the year trying to figure out who we should approach to get the ball rolling,” Cole said. “It was good luck that Dr. (Jeffery) Johns was a guest speaker during our Brain, Behavior and Movement block. Lacking any better options, and probably any good sense, we decided our best move would be to just approach him with our elevator pitch after his lecture and hope for the best.”

Johns, who is the medical director at Stallworth, appreciates Cole, Libre and Schellhammer’s creativity and professionalism.

“As our patients recover and rehabilitate from a variety of serious illnesses and injuries, this program and the art it shares serve as reminders of aspects of the nonmedical world and bring joy and aspects of home to our patients,” he said. “Patients have shared with me how much they appreciate the program’s added value, which they describe as interactions with the medical student volunteers, learning about the local artists responsible for the works, and engaging with other staff, visitors and patients about the art and other interests that expand beyond the walls of the hospital.”

With the guidance of Johns, faculty advisor Lealani Mae Acosta, MD, MPH, associate professor of Neurology, and Amy Fleming, MD, MScHPE, senior associate dean of Medical Student and Alumni Affairs, Cole, Libre and Schellhammer approached Nashville Public Library with their idea.

“We met with a few library senior staff who were excited about the program and enthusiastic to help make it a reality,” Cole said.

The team enrolled their first patient in the fall of 2022 and experienced an unexpected boomerang benefit.

“As second-year medical students, we get to spend the whole year in the hospital, learning what it means to be a doctor. Our community art initiative has been a special opportunity to get to know patients in a new context — beyond their medical conditions,” Schellhammer said. “I’ve loved learning their life stories, watching them pick their favorite piece of art and describe why, then seeing their reaction to the painting on their wall. It’s been an incredibly gratifying experience.”

For the time being, this program applies solely to Stallworth. But the group has secured a small amount of funding to create an in-house collection of artwork with the purpose of expanding the program and is consulting with the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery to curate a collection that focuses on community artists. They’re also working to make the program sustainable after they graduate by bringing in student volunteers to carry it forward.

In the meantime, they make a daily difference, patient by patient, piece by piece.

“One day, while going around Stallworth, we discovered that one of our patients was an artist herself,” Libre said. “Art meant the world to her, and we talked about how she used art as a creative outlet in her life and had missed it during her monthslong hospitalization at Vanderbilt. The next day when we stopped by, we found the unit buzzing with excitement. Her partner had brought in pieces of her beautiful artwork, and everyone from the nursing staff to case managers to environmental services was talking about her art.

“This was a perfect example of what art can mean to patients, family and staff — providing an outlet for healing, creating a much-needed distraction from sickness and building a more tight-knit community.”