Dr Thivyaa Gangatharan, Oxford Health Arts Partnership

Last month, I had the absolute delight of embarking upon my favourite four weeks of medical school ever: my elective volunteering placement with the Oxford Arts Partnership! I had wanted to learn more about the role of the humanities in healing beyond pharmaceuticals, but I was hardly aware of what I might be in for with the Oxford Health Charity team!

Quite different to the averted gazes and awkward glances I have been met by from medical colleagues in the hierarchies of hospital wards, when I met the OHC team, I was met with one of the warmest welcomes I have ever received! Much to my surprise, I was introduced to everyone in the team by name, and all my new colleagues made the effort to learn my name and pronounce it properly! Although this may sound simple, it was a rare experience within healthcare settings, where usually I am named “med student” at best, and ignored entirely at first. Such a warm welcome at the OHC thus helped me feel valued and as an integrated member of the team. These kind interactions also encouraged me to ask questions, offer critique and feel safe in this space, from the offset, despite working with a variety of people across a variety of sites! Ultimately, the ethos of community that OHC provides for its patients was tangible since my first day of volunteering, and one that has had a lasting impression on me! 

So, with all this community and teamwork, what did we get up to? The short answer: a lot of fun! The long answer: a lot of messy, artsy, rewarding fun! My volunteering spanned three days, with a few different projects, from green spaces to arts for mental and physical health, across three different sites. Our activities ranged from digging soil and learning from patients on how to best look after a seed, to supporting patients with strokes to remain self-compassionate through their art. I found all of it most humbling.

There was something about doing an activity alongside patients, such as art or gardening, instead of doing something to patients, such as administering medication, which felt different – it was a different kind of interaction, one which valued the patient as a person, and opened my eyes to a whole new world of care. Indeed, through taking off the diagnostic labels and engaging with patients as peers - as colleagues in a task of art, unrelated to biomedicine - volunteering reminded me that the patients we see are as human as us too, and equally that we too are vulnerable to suffering as them. Whilst these are things that I know, the nature of medical interactions I have observed at medical school have often been encounters where there is a clear paternalistic power dynamic between physician and patient. To simply exist in time alongside a patient without talking about symptoms, or analysing them, and rather to engage in a creative activity alongside them – made them more human, and forced me to remember this basic fact whilst deconstructing the medical dynamics I had internalised.  

Overall, in addition to the delight of seeing what patients create with their art and gardening, I have had a fantastic time observing how research can be done alongside creative endeavours within healthcare. This creative work with allied health professionals is something I had had limited exposure to, and therefore my time at OHC has been truly formative for me in helping me to open my eyes to the possibilities of outstanding, creative healthcare. Meeting the wonderful, dedicated team of artists, gardeners and coordinators has been truly inspirational – and refreshing, outside of the medical model.

I have most certainly enjoyed my time at here with the team and the patients, so much so that I have decided to continue volunteering at OHC for the summer and thoroughly look forward to continuing learning with this fantastic team! Huge shoutout to my supervisors Angela Conlan and Tom Cox, as well as Laura, Vicky and Sophie for making my time at OHC so fun and memorable!

Oxford Health Partnership Team, says:

"As a team, we've had a really great experience with volunteers, who bring their own skills and energy to help us improve the patient experience through creative projects. Thivyaa was a delight to welcome to our team and was able to participate in various projects during her time with us. This included helping with a literature study for a new research project as well as supporting participants to get the most out of sessions. She quickly fitted in with the team, and we are really happy that she has chosen to continue to volunteer with us over the summer."