Physical therapy students use art to humanize patients
Natasha Blizzard had never spoken to her father in-depth about his post-traumatic stress disorder. The first-year physical therapy student at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth’s School of Health Professions said her father’s 27 years of military service, including several combat tours, changed aspects of his personality.
“He felt so isolated,” Blizzard said. “He no longer wanted to go out and be social or do some of the same things he would do before. He just had feelings of anger.”
The Belton, Texas native first broached the subject with her father after she was assigned an art project in her culture and psychosocial issues in physical therapy course. All first-year PT students were asked to interview a person with a disability and create a piece that represents the subject’s journey. Students could choose any medium.
“It was definitely a curveball,” Blizzard said. “We’re used to just studying for exams and our hands-on skills checks. Most of us aren’t really what we would consider artistic, so we thought.”
The students presented their work during a reception in the Interdisciplinary Research and Education Building’s Innovation Lab. Students, faculty, staff, friends and family members celebrated the 49 pieces on display. Included in the collection were works of paint on canvas, sculptures composed of varying materials, collages with different pictures and fabrics, a work of sticky notes, digital art, recorded dances and more.
Burton chose a collage that represented her father’s change in sensory perception before and after his deployment. Her piece was filled with images showing a wide range of emotions and depictions of military service, including a Humvee similar to one that was destroyed while her father was on patrol.
Her father became triggered by seemingly mundane touches of affection or tasks that used to seem small. With her art, Blizzard tried to guide the viewer through layers of cascading emotions.
“Before he went off to that deployment, my mom would love to give him behind-the-back-hugs, just randomly,” Blizzard said. “But after he came back, she went and tried to do the same thing and he had to explain to her, ‘Please don’t do that because it no longer evokes the same feeling.’”
SHP’s Physical Therapy chair, Dr. Michael Furtado, said this project allowed the students to think about physical therapy abstractly. Representing the people they interviewed, he said, gave the soon-to-be clinicians greater context and empathy for their patients.
“Physical therapy is not just about the science of the movement system,” he said. “It is also about the interaction with the human who controls the movement system, and humans are complex. I hope the students learned something about themselves and others that they will take into their everyday practice after this uncharacteristic but powerful assignment.”
“I heard the voices of all those interviewed through the students’ art projects,” he continued. “To provide the interviewees with the ability to tell their story made all the hard work to make the night happen worth it.
For Jackelin Calixto, the project presented a unique opportunity to explore the world of her 8-year-old nephew, who is autistic. Because of his speech limitations, the Wichita Falls native spoke to his parents about the challenges and joys of his developmental path.
After her interviews, she sculpted a bowl filled with games, food and other toys and trinkets that make her nephew happy. The inside of the bowl is painted red, which Calixto said represents the love and support her family has shown. Half of the exterior of her piece is yellow, which represents the exuberant happiness the child’s family feels when he is progressing, and the other half is grey, which stands for the sadness brought on by the communication barriers.
“He’s very high functioning, and he loves technology,” she said. “He’s very good on the tablet. He’s very good with video games. He loves watching movies, anything like that — especially Mario Brothers.
“Because he has autism, he only chooses certain things. My focus inside the bowl was things that he likes and that his parents know he likes. His parents try to spend more time focusing on the things that he does like, so they can support him in that way.”
Calixto, who decided to pursue PT as a career path after watching her grandfather recover from knee replacement, found assignment was therapeutic, despite its due date bumping up against finals. She said she’ll take the lessons she learned from this assignment into her career.
“This class opened our minds to be able to recognize these people and be aware of their feelings,” she said. “There is a story behind them. They’re not a case scenario that you have to do. They have their personalities, and you have to match them.”
Judges voted on best-of-show winners during the event. The winners were (in alphabetical order):
- Taylor Allen
- Chandler Cobb
- Sam Cornish
- Mariah Murillo
- Grace Snyder
- Irene Zachariah
The Compassion Award went to Jonathan Hansen.
“I want to say thank you to all of our students who put so much hard work and dedication into their art, all of the faculty and staff to prepare the students and the event space, all of the guests and judges, and, most importantly, I want to thank those who were interviewed for this project,” said Furtado. “You allowed us into your world, and we were so moved by it.”
Blizzard, whose passion for PT was ignited after being treated for a basketball injury, said this project not only brought her closer to her father but also her classmates.
“Sitting in class together during lectures, we don’t often get to see the creative side of one another,” she said. “So, it was good to see the hidden talents and learn about the experiences my classmates had during their interviews. I don’t know if we would’ve gotten to see or experience that without this class or this project.”
[Photos by Mindy Brummett.]