Artists in the Wounded Warrior Unit at Walter Reed Hospital

Posted by Shanti Norris, Nov 17, 2013 0 comments


When Smith Center for Healing and the Arts first brought professional artists into the Wounded Warrior Unit at Walter Reed to work directly with patients, the clinical staff said "we don’t know who you are, but please stay out of our way." They told the artists to avoid patients that they considered difficult or depressed.  Within a few months, they were giving the artists referral lists of patients that they wanted them to visit with – and asked them to please be sure to visit the difficult and depressed patients.  The staff have come to see the artists as part of their healing team and even request lunchtime sessions for themselves to reduce their own stress.

Four years ago we were invited to bring our successful hospital based artist-in-residence program into what is now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to work with Wounded Warriors in the surgical unit.  Our artists had been working with adult cancer patients at area hospitals for many years. They came to Walter Reed where we trained them in military culture and the specifics of Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other injuries of modern day warfare.  They learned hospital protocol, were trained in HIPPA regulations and went through medical and background screening requirements.  They were educated in the surprisingly extensive history of the arts in the military.  Then they went to work knocking on patients’ doors and offering sessions for family members in the family lounge.

Linda, a painter and former Montgomery County art teacher, guides patients and families through painting, drawing, and clay modeling activities.  Many of the wounded warriors have received Purple Hearts for their service, and a favorite project is painting boxes to hold their medals of honor.

Laura, a music therapist who plays the alto flute, played classical, jazz, popular, and folk music bedside and in the halls, soothing and inspiring patients, caregivers and visitors.   One of the first patients Laura was directed to visit was a young, quadruple amputee in the ICU.  When she got to his room she was unable to enter because he was in the midst of an emergency procedure; from outside she could see that the patient was bleeding profusely, and doctors and nurses were rushing in and out of the room.  Laura found a chair and played outside of the young man’s room.  After the procedure, the nurses told her they could hear her playing from inside the room, and thanked her for the calming and encouraging effect it had on them.

She would go into patients’ rooms and play for them – sometimes they would go to sleep while she plays.  One marine told her after she played for half an hour in his room that he had not been that relaxed since before he deployed.

Kiamsha is a writer and visual artist (and a lawyer by day).   She works on Saturdays on the Wounded Warrior unit going room to room and sometimes with family members in the waiting room.  She helps patients and their families relax and process their emotions through poetry, painting and collage making.  Family members sometimes use the session to manage the multifarious emotions that most caregivers experience but often cannot articulate.  A young, , overwhelmed wife of an amputee patient, who is also an expectant mother, had a session with Kiamsha in which she created a poem and a collage while discussing her challenges and sharing stories.  At the end of the session she thanked Kiamsha for the uplifting collage that she would place in her new home, and for reminding her of how much peace she gets from writing.

Kiamsha worked with a young Marine who had traumatic brain injuries and with his mother.  The marine was unable to speak, had little movement in his hands and spent much of his time in a wheel chair.  He communicated by blinking his eyes, smiling, raising his thumbs up or down, and laughing a little bit.

Kiamsha had worked with this marine several times previously, and this day his mother wanted her son to participate in a creative activity.  She told stories about his tattoos,  pointing to them as she spoke to keep him engaged.   She spoke especially of the Celtic tattoo he created on his wrist to honor his rebel spirit. She also shared how much he loved to design tattoos and write poetry.  He gave a thumbs up when they asked him if he loved his tattoos and if he was a rebel.  Kiamsha made three word-phrases on red construction paper (his favorite color).  They included the messages below.

-#1    Rebel Artist in the house. Watch out!

-#2 – A rebel artist makes his own way.

-#3 – Patrick* Rebel Artist

He gave a thumbs-up on the statement after we posted them on his bulletin board. His mother was more relaxed and happy that her son was able to participate in a creative project.  He was happy and playful.

Helping to create the National Summits on Art in the Military and contributing to The National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military has been an extraordinary experience.  We are at the beginning of a national movement to bring the healing power of creativity to so many of our gifted men and women and their families throughout the military experience. For some the arts provide a relief from boredom and stress reduction.  For others they provide an opportunity to learn new skills, repair fine motor movement and coordination, or regain a sense of self.   The arts provide a way to express or work through difficult feelings, gain insight, make sense of something or ultimately help transform suffering into meaning.  For many the arts provide a return to hope and an opportunity to find the way back home.

*name changed

Smith Center for Healing & the Arts has been working with service members, veterans, and their families at Walter Reed since 2010. To learn more about the organization and the Artist-in-Residence program, visit

Learn more about the National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military and the ways that art helps heal in our Google Hangout on Tuesday, November 19 at 4:00 pm EST. Join here


Please login to post comments.