The artist will see you now: Sanford’s resident artist creates a more ‘human’ hospital

Artists work in some of the most peculiar places: expansive studio spaces; cramped, cluttered holes in the wall; on stages; in garages; or out in public.

But here’s a new one. Heather Zinger works in a hospital. Specifically, she works in the Roger Maris Cancer Center at Sanford Health as their artist in residence, a part-time position she’s held since September of this year.

So, you’re probably wondering, what exactly does an artist in residence at a hospital do?

Zinger’s duties are similar to what resident artists do in other settings, which typically include leading workshops and developing curricula for a program. The big difference, of course, is the unorthodox setting. She plans and coordinates special projects, including one in the works that will hang environmental portraits of the hospital’s doctors engaged in their favorite activities. She works out in the community, sharing a recent project with an area school to create holiday cards for hospital patients. And, most importantly, she works directly with patients and their family members in outpatient care situations, getting them involved with art projects that help them pass the time and occupy their minds with something other than their treatment.

For both Zinger and Sanford, the goal is to humanize the health care experience, something that has plenty of desirable side effects.

Zinger is in her early thirties. A native of the Chicago area, she first studied French before attending the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Ore., to pursue photography. She soon became interested in social practice art, a discipline that involves audience participation and engagement with the public, usually along political and social issues. Her interest in working with hospitals stems from treatment she received for Guillain-Barré Syndrome as a child and from her time living in France, where she saw a dramatically different style of health care.

“Hospitals can be dreary places. When I was in France, I saw that they were so willing to make things comfortable,” she says. “It wasn’t like what I saw here, where hospitals can be cold and alienating. It was something more human.”

After meeting NDSU’s Art Department Head Michael Strand at a social practice conference in Portland, she was encouraged by Strand to apply for the recently created position of resident artist at Sanford Health in Fargo. The position was integrated into Sanford’s Embrace Cancer Survivorship Program, which assists cancer survivors by helping them form personal connections to each other, education, and empowerment.

The hospital received a grant from the Livestrong Foundation to partly fund the position, accomplishing a goal set by Sanford oncologist Shelby Terstriep to establish broader, integrated services into their health care regimen.

Terstriep sees Zinger’s addition to the staff as the first step in creating a dynamic arts program that “taps into an artist’s expertise” to create an environment of healing and well being that wouldn’t be attainable otherwise, and it’s bearing out in patient reaction.

“Heather’s had a number of moments that tell us we’re doing the right thing here,” Terstriep says.

Having artists on staff at hospitals is still a new idea. There are only 20 such positions in the United States, including one at Sanford’s Sioux Falls location, but the idea is gaining traction as health care professionals realize the potential for healing that the arts can provide through positions like Zinger’s and through more regimented and involved care options like art therapy (for the sake of clarity, it should be mentioned that Zinger is not an art therapist). Embrace program coordinator Jenna Linder says the research is getting harder to ignore, and positive reaction for Zinger’s work keeps flooding in.

“The feedback we’ve gotten back on Heather’s work is amazing,” Linder says. “It relieves patient stress and it improves overall patient well-being.”

“It’s the little things that really mean the most to people,” she continues.

And for Zinger, the real upshot has been the opportunity to interact with patients and connect with them outside of their regular care routines.

“When I work with kids, I see that it has a calming effect on them. And people get so into it. For them, I think it has humanized their hospital experience.”

Image: A participatory art project led by Heather Zinger earlier this year for the Embrace Cancer Survivor’s picnic. People picked one of the ribbon based on their role in a survivor’s life and attached the ribbon to a balloon in various ways. The balloon will eventually be hung at the hospital. Courtesy of Heather Zinger and Sanford Health.

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