Relieving the boredom for teenage patients

Long-stay teenagers fall between the cracks in hospitals and it requires imagination and creativity to relieve their boredom, writes Helen O’Callaghan. 

TEENAGERS, who are long-stay hospital patients, have it tough. They’re often in wards with younger patients or lying in units alongside older adults. Yet, they’re not children and they’re not yet adults.

They can become very bored and withdrawn in hospital, says Anne Olney, Cork University Hospital (CUH) play therapist. “Their school-life, extra-curricular activities and relationships with friends have all been interrupted. Even when their friends visit they’re saying ‘ah, I’ve got to get home to do my homework’ — it’s hard on them too.”

Conditions that keep teens in hospital for weeks or even months at a time — or that bring them back repeatedly — include chronic illnesses like diabetes, asthma or cystic fibrosis (CF) and mental health issues such as eating disorders and self-harming. If a teen is in with something short-term, like appendicitis, their dad will maybe take time off work or their mum will be at the bedside, points out Olney.

“But when a child has a chronic illness, parents can’t do that — it’s impossible for a household with other children to run if one parent is constantly by the [hospital] bedside. Parents visit in the evenings, sometimes just a couple of times a week.”

For Olney, teen patients are a vulnerable, in-between group. This is obvious when it comes to keeping them active. Like all teens — and younger children — hospital-bound teenagers have a need to do, to explore and discover. “But trying to get them into the playroom is impossible. We bring play to their bedside and you see in their eyes: ‘go away’. Younger children will play games and are very willing. Adult patients will say ‘here, give me that magazine, I’ll read for a while and then I’ll doze’.”

Next Friday, the paediatric ward of CUH will be transformed as teen patients take part in Radio/Silence, an interactive radio play that will be broadcast on CUH radio. Eszter Némethi, a Cork-based Hungarian theatre-maker, worked with the teenagers to develop stories about everyday life of the hospital — the radio game invites listeners to re-imagine what they see around them. The fact that anyone in the hospital can tune into or happen upon the game brings the stories to the larger hospital population.

The project is part of Cloudlands, an artist-in-residence programme led by Helium, the children’s arts and health organisation. The radio game uses answering machine technology similar to that experienced by people when they phone a government department. Participants make choices using their keypads and opt for different paths to follow. The teenagers’ stories have been woven into a narrative by Némethi and will be recorded by professional voice actors, with sound designer Carl Kennedy and Tom Swift of the Performance Corporation part of the creative team. Participants who dial in will become the heroes of the story and decide how it ends.

Némethi has worked for the past seven months with about 20 teen patients at CUH aged between 11 and 16. “There’s not really a space for teens in the hospital so I go to their bedside. It’s challenging — teens don’t really want to invest in anything to do with the hospital. It takes a lot of chatting and getting to know before we can get involved in making art or stories.”

When it comes to preferred art-forms, most teens like making games, says Némethi. “This can involve animation, adventure. They like making things that are real. One patient — with CF and in isolation — made a giant Connect 4 board game on her window, so she could play with other people through the window.”

Némethi also worked with an 11-year-old boy, who devised an elaborate game about a medical land ruled by a kindly penguin king. “A virus attacks the land, stealing the puffin’s siblings. The puffin rescues them with help from neighbouring kingdoms — Ladybird and Seahorse. [Puffin, Ladybird and Seahorse are CUH children’s wards]. The main enemy is the evil doctor — in fact the kindly king who has been turned nasty by the virus. The virus is defeated, the puffins rescued and the penguin king returned.”

The story was a platform computer game with special skills, weapons and levels, says Némethi, who says such creations provide distraction and empowerment for young patients. “They see it being taken seriously — the final radio game is a mix of elements from different teenagers’ stories.”

And it’s significant that the 11-year-old’s story was about beating a virus. “It’s dealing with what is going on [hospitals, illness]. I love encountering these stories. I can see something processing within [the patient],” says Némethi.

Edelle Nolan, CUH arts coordinator, says the Cloudlands project connects teens, who are unwell, with other teenagers in hospital. “The radio game is made up of all of their work combined. This is part of something loads of teens have contributed to. Teenagers hate being different to their peers — they mightn’t even know other teens are in hospital. Cloudlands provides a way of bringing up this conversation – normalising it so they don’t feel isolated.”

* Radio/Silence will be broadcast on CUH radio on May 29. A podcast will be available at www.helium.ie

Art of recovery

* Teenagers attending paediatric hospitals and units are typically aged up to 16 years. They account for only 25% of hospital admissions, but, according to Children in Hospital, they’re the paediatric group with the highest percentage of chronic illness — and, therefore, have the highest rate of repeat admissions and longer stays. How can participation in the arts help health?

* According to Edelle Nolan, CUH arts coordinator, creativity aids relaxation — when engaged in creative pursuits, the brain predominately uses Alpha waves. “These aid relaxation — the optimum state for recovery from illness. The arts also offer distraction from illness, which helps to prevent worry related to illness.” 

* British research shows that children and teens with chronic illness, who spend long periods in hospital, can present with depression, and other mental-health issues, as adults. But if the hospital experience had been ‘normalised’ — for example, the teen can attend school or participate in an arts programme — this had a preventive, beneficial effect.

* A US study looked at the effect of having art in patients’ bedrooms, post heart surgery. “In every case, where landscapes were used, patients needed less medication and less time to recover,” says Nolan, who says that the landscapes had to be soothing and familiar, rather than abstract or dramatic.


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