When she was growing up, Suzannah Luft’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents instilled in her a deep appreciation for all things creative: “In my family, the value of art is unquestioned and revered, and I treasure that belief,” Luft says.
Flash-forward to the present: Luft is a Schweitzer Fellow and a student at Dartmouth Medical School — and she’s partnering with AVA Gallery and Art Center to improve the social, emotional, and physical health of children and adults with special needs.
First, Luft ran a summer-long outdoor arts program, which culminated with a community arts festival on the town green and a collaborative sculptural project. Since then, she has been working with Voices of Children at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center to incorporate reflection through art into children’s hospital experiences during clinic days.
Thanks to a grant from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation, Luft is incorporating the 5-2-1-0 Healthy Kids Countdown — ASF’s recently-announced childhood obesity prevention program — into her Schweitzer project. Ultimately, she says, she hopes that the people she’s worked with “will always be able to hang onto art as a productive outlet for their emotional health and as a way to connect with other people.”
Read on for a glimpse into this Schweitzer Fellow’s journey of service.
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
I know that art experiences are especially meaningful for people with special needs. For people who find verbal communication challenging, art can be an alternative language and an outlet for emotional well-being. Unfortunately, after high school graduation, many members of the special needs community lose art opportunities that have been important parts of their lives, and this leaves a deficit that I hoped my Schweitzer project could help fill.
While in college, I was involved with Camp Okawehna, a summer camp for kids on dialysis and post-kidney transplant, and there I realized that people with serious medical conditions need chances to interact with one another over non-medical activities. The social value of a shared art experience is central for the children and adults with chronic medical conditions and/or developmental disorders who participated in my Schweitzer project this summer and is the premise for providing opportunities for self-expression at the craniofacial defects clinics, where kids experiencing similar medical problems can relate to each other over art.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
For one thing, we are about to install the eight life-sized aluminum self-portraits created by the kids in my summer class as a collaborative public art project. The sculptures will permanently live outside of inpatient windows at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC), set against a blue wall. The kids had a blast painting their figures with bright colors, and the stylistic variation is amazing. Hopefully these happy figures will appear to dance against the sky, providing patients with visual comfort and inspiration when they need it most.
I hope that everyone I worked with this summer and the kids that I will work with at the hospital this year will always be able to hang onto art as a productive outlet for their emotional health and as a way to connect with other people.
Finally, we incorporated the 5-2-1-0 Healthy Kids Countdown message into the community art celebration we had on the town green at the end of the summer art classes. Dartmouth Schweitzer Fellows ran a station where kids played a healthy eating game and won seasonal fruit prizes. It was very popular, and kids enjoyed snacking on their fruit between art projects. We had some young children who tried nectarines and plums for the first time,
and we hope that they continue to view fruit as healthy treats.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
I think the scariest issue is the sky-rocketing cost of healthcare in our country. People lose their life savings to medical crises, and the expense of health insurance can be absolutely crippling. We have a large aging population that is going to need increasing care, and the costs of medical treatment have been dramatically increasing over the past couple decades. The US spends more than any other country on healthcare, twice as much per person as several countries that have higher life expectancies on the order of years. With the 37th lowest infant mortality rate in the world, we are paying extraordinary sums for inadequate and unequal care.
This issue needs to be attacked through several angles of our society. Certainly, measures to eliminate unnecessary medical procedures would help curb expenses, as would universal access to primary care for all Americans so that treatable health conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, can be identified and addressed before they become crises. Equally as important, to my mind as a future physician, is emphatically and proactively encouraging people to exercise, eat well, maintain a healthy weight and stay far, far away from tobacco products.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
It turns out that children plus paint equals chaos. This wasn’t a shock, but I quickly discovered that I couldn’t manage this project alone without wherever we work ending up like a giant Jackson Pollack painting. The real surprise is how generous and enthusiastic people have been about helping me. The staff and interns at the AVA Gallery supported me every step of the way, and they are experts on running art programs for people with special needs. My classmates at the medical school have been incredibly involved with the classes and helped me lug art supplies around town. Vermont metal sculptor Jeffrey Sass jumped right on board with our public art project, which was only possible because of his wholehearted commitment of time, labor and spirit, and the DHMC arts coordinator gave us the special opportunity to create a collaborative piece of public art for the hospital. The DHMC craniofacial defects team also really embraced this project and took care of the logistical complications that come along with using art materials in clean hospital spaces. From students to hospital staff to artists, I have been stunned by people’s excitement and willingness to jump through hoops to make this project work.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?
What a gift! I have the opportunity to intertwine my life-long interests of art and medicine and now have branched my life out into this amazingly rich environment. Being a Schweitzer Fellow means to me embracing where I am now as my community, not as a transient location where I’m going to school. We can all use the composite of our passions to do good wherever we are by being productive members of our communities. This is a central lesson in my medical education.
Luft is a Schweitzer Fellow in New Hampshire. Click here to read more about The New Hampshire-Vermont Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Luft it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The New Hampshire-Vermont Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Luft’s work to empower children with special needs, click here.
Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.