Foundation completes work placing art in Vt. hospitals


MANCHESTER — Completing a project that began seven years ago, the Susan Sebastian Foundation made a donation of more than 50 pieces of artwork to Southwestern Vermont Medical Center this week with the help of the doctor who inspired the project without even knowing it.

Dr. Esther Sternberg, founding director of the University of Arizona Institute on Place and Wellbeing and professor of medicine and research director at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Arizona at Tucson, had written a book, “Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being,” that inspired the members of the foundation to begin giving art to Vermont hospitals.

But Sternberg herself, while she is a part-time Vermonter, didn’t know what her work had inspired until she was asked by Southwestern Vermont Health Care to make a presentation in Manchester this weekend.

“I was really deeply moved when the Susan Sebastian Foundation’s executive director contacted me and told me the story. It is very inspiring to know that my book could have helped launch this mission that will improve the health and well being of patients in hospitals,” Sternberg said.

Susan Sebastian, who was born in Brattleboro and grew up in Stowe, was 52 when she died in 2009. Because she had lifelong health problems, she had already spent a lot of time in hospitals.

Unhappy with the blank walls she looked at so often, Sebastian told her mother, Elise Braun, that she planned to sell her house and buy artwork to donate to Vermont hospitals. After Sebastian’s death, Braun, of Waterbury, decided to honor her daughter’s wish.

With the help of Williston attorney Gilbert Myers, Braun created a foundation that has donated large numbers of paintings to Vermont hospitals to make them better places for patients to heal.

Rutland Regional Medical Center received 22 pieces in 2014. In Rutland, the pieces were chosen by Mary Nemeth, the hospital’s vice president of corporate support.

“Each piece was specially chosen to help make patient rooms bright and inviting places that promote the well-being of patients and their families,” Nemeth said in a statement.

The University of Vermont Health Network-Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin received 38 pieces last year. Brattleboro Memorial Hospital received 27 pieces in 2014.

SVMC, in Bennington, unveiled its 54 pieces, chosen by a team that included medical professionals, at a two-day showing at Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester over the weekend. In total, there were more than 100 painting shown and those that weren’t chosen for display at the hospital were available for sale.

Sternberg, who spends her summers in Burlington, had a chance to see what the foundation had done with her work when she visited the SVAC campus Saturday to give a presentation on her work.

While Sternberg’s book looks more at how what a person will “see and touch and do and smell in a space” can affect their stress level and therefore their health, she said there was research to suggest that artwork could have a positive effect on that location.

“We know that stress can make you sick. … It’s not that stress causes illness, it just impairs your body’s ability to fight disease and to heal. So if you can do anything to help people who are already sick, who are already stressed, who are already anxious, reduce that stress response, reduce that anxiety and get themselves into that place of peace, which art can do, then you’re helping them,” she said.

Sternberg said projects like the one the Susan Sebastian Foundation had just finished could be the next step in healing.

“I think in medicine, we’re moving beyond getting rid of the negative. Of course we have to get rid of the negative, get rid of the toxins and so on but we also have to enhance the environment, to enhance well being,” she said.

According to Sternberg, there is also evidence from studies of work like hers that show hospitals that create a less stressful space see a financial savings from the investment.

Tom Dee, the hospital’s president and CEO, said he hoped the gift of the artwork would be “transformative.” He said officials are already working on improvements they hope to bring to the Green Mountain Care Board by September they hope will change the hospital from something with an “institutional feeling to much more of a place of wellness,” he said.

“We understand as we change our facilities, the role that light plays, the role of color, art, in terms of creating that environment, hopefully, to a feeling of much more wellness instead of illness,” he said.

The artwork is expected to be placed at SVMC within the next few weeks.

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