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Local Neurologist's Prescription For Her Patients Includes Art

Sep 20, 2018

"Brainwaves" by encaustic artist Erin Rigney. This piece inspired the series that now hangs in Dr. Brooke Allen's clinic.
Credit Erin Rigney

The artwork around the doctor's office might actually calm patients, and even help heal them. Dr. Brooke Allen is a neurologist at Roaring Fork Neurology. She recently commissioned local artist Erin Rigney to create a series of works for her office.

David Kline visits Roaring Fork Neurology at least once a week for an infusion to treat his multiple sclerosis. As he sits in the waiting room at the beginning of what will be several hours in the clinic, he sees a huge painting on the wall in front of him, dark blue splashed on a stark white background, like a stormy ocean underneath white clouds.

“It’s comforting, open, relaxing,” said Kline.

This is part of the “Brainwaves” series that Erin Rigney created for Dr. Brooke Allen.

“It just kind of mimics the neural connections that we see on paper when we record brain activity, which is so beautiful,” said Allen.  

Rigney said this piece is meant to acknowledge how someone might feel at the moment they walk through these doors.

“It was the idea of this unsettling feeling, and then the idea was, as it flowed into the space and into seeing the doctors, that it’s this very calming sense of being held,” said Rigney.

Rigney herself knows that feeling. Before she worked with Allen on “Brainwaves,” she was a patient at this clinic.  

“I remember coming to see the neurologist and just being really overwhelmed and kind of scared and I had little kids and I didn’t know what was going on with my brain...it just was this really tumultuous feeling,” she said.

When Allen moved into a new office, she knew she wanted the environment to be calm, not sterile. She reached out to Rigney to ask if she would make the artwork.

“Creating that space as soon as someone walks in, whether they’re dealing with a chronic disease they’ve known about for a long time, or they’re just hearing about something for the first time that feels really scary; this actually makes my job a lot easier,” said Allen, referencing Rigney's artwork.

More and more research is showing how art can impact human health and emotions. In one recent study, surgery patients who had a picture of a landscape on their wall didn’t require as much pain medication, and they were discharged earlier than those who didn’t.  

Allen said other studies have shown that actually doing art activities has a host of benefits.

“The common themes that come with these studies are reduced stress, reduced evidence of depression, better cancer pain control, in particular, and better well-being associated with your chronic disease,” she said.

Allen’s patients don’t just look at art on her office walls. They also can do art therapy, like visual journaling. Rigney helps co-teach some of these sessions with Emily Hightower, an integrative health coach.

Hightower said people benefit from art therapy because of the physical nature of it.

“We are doers. And in our culture, we’ve become consumers, rather than creators. So to move your hands through these materials -- that’s active therapy. That’s not just preventative. It’s activating whole brain health now,” said Hightower.

Allen said this multisensory approach is critical when treating chronic diseases. She’d like to see more research on art and music therapy, because she says just prescribing a drug for someone with a chronic disease is rarely the answer.

“And we’re very good at that. As physicians, we’re very good at prescribing medicines. We’re not very good at just stopping, listening and trying to understand what else might help someone when everything else has failed,” she said.

Studies prove what Rigney learned on her own while making “Brainwaves.”

“Each time I’m starting a new piece, I always used to just say, 'Please, let this bring the sense of peace and tranquility that it brings to me, to others,'” she said.

By placing these calming pieces throughout the office, Allen has prescribed art as a part of the treatment for all of her patients.