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Healing Arts Provide Outlet for Military Hospital Patients

Healing Arts
We treat the participant like a person, not a patient

The American Red Cross is helping military members who are wounded, ill or injured start the healing process with the Service to Armed Forces Healing Arts Program.

Healing Arts provides an outlet for wounded service members to use art projects to begin their road to recovery. Participants with traumatic brain injuries or psychological health issues do simple visual art projects such as making masks, drawing or working with clay to help them relax and start talking about their circumstances.

“The program has been very successful,” said Regina DeFrancisco, lead volunteer for the Healing Arts Program. “We work with patients on the Behavioral Health and Traumatic Brain Injury units. Sometimes we see a difference in the patient just from the beginning to the end of the session.”

HELPING HERE AT HOME AND ABROAD Healing Arts has been underway at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. for about three years. It was recently introduced at military hospitals in Germany such as Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the largest U.S. military facility overseas.

Red Cross workers who manage the program are all volunteers, most of them mental health professionals or members of the art education profession. “We treat the participant like a person, not a patient,” DeFrancisco related. “The men and women look forward to working with us. Sometimes we see a physical change in the hour they are with us. And we have gained the trust of the doctors.” The program has logged about 2,500 patient visits at Walter Reed in the last three years.

“Many of the masks they make are autobiographical in nature,” DeFrancisco said. “Some may symbolize what was seen in combat. Others may be about their families. Once they start working, they relax and start talking.”

Many of the patients on the Behavioral Health Unit suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and are trying to get back to active duty. Their time in the hospital can be shorter than the injured members on the Traumatic Brain Injury unit, many of whom are hospitalized for long periods of time.

The program is also tweaked to fit specific needs. For instance, some may do projects with clay or foil if their vision or use of their hands is affected. And families – wives, parents, kids – can also participate.

The Red Cross program also delivers classes in watercolor, guitar, piano and photography at Walter Reed. A group of high school volunteers teach piano after they visited Walter Reed to entertain and many of the patients said they would like to learn to play. The Red Cross purchased keyboards and the lessons began.

FAMILIES NOT FORGOTTEN Family members, many of whom are at the hospital for months on end as their injured family member works to recover, are also remembered by Red Cross SAF workers. One group holds early-morning informal sessions, “coffees”, for family members waiting to meet with doctors.

During one of the sessions a mother relayed the day her son came to Walter Reed was the day of her hair appointment five months earlier. The woman had been at the hospital ever since and her sister visited to do her hair for her. Hearing this, another group sponsored a day at a beauty salon for hair and make-up services for the moms and wives complete with transportation back and forth.

MORE PROGRAMS The Red Cross also conducts other programs for injured military members, such as a pet therapy program where dogs visit the patients to help them forget about their current circumstances and relax.

Another program helps assess the service member’s driving capabilities in adaptive vans to identify the specific equipment they will need when they purchase a vehicle. Many patients in military hospitals are far from home. The Red Cross has Google Chromebooks available for them to keep in touch with loved ones and continue relationships with families they meet while hospitalized.

MORE THAN A CENTURY OF SERVICE The Red Cross commitment to members of the U.S. military began more than a century ago when founder Clara Barton first recruited nurses to support the Army. Today, the Red Cross works in military and veterans’ hospitals, provides 24-hour emergency communications between military members and their families, access to financial assistance in partnership with military aid societies, helps military families connect with local resources and support services and provides training to help families cope with the challenges of military life.

If someone would like to support programs like these that help members of the military, they can become a Red Cross volunteer or make a donation to support Red Cross services. More information is available on this web site.

Photo Caption: Master Sergeant Lemarr displays his mask after participating in the Healing Arts Program at a military medical facility in Germany.

Tags: SAF.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.