You find a mix of current and former patients in the art studio at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific in Honolulu – a program that for more than two decades has eased patients’ pain through art.

“A lot of them have never painted before,” says Reuben Young, the hospital’s art instructor. He says it’s powerful to watch people find an outlet for their creative expression.

“Those who never thought they were able to create a work of art find it amazing that they can, and some turn out to be very, very good,” he says. “My biggest reward is just seeing the smiles on their faces when they see what they can accomplish.”

The hospital’s Creative Arts Program is open to anyone who has been in rehabilitation at the hospital. Nearly half of the hospital’s patients are treated for stroke, brain or spinal cord injuries. The program helps them improve their physical dexterity, tap their creativity and work on hand-to-hand coordination as they work in a variety of mediums that include oils, acrylics, mosaics, clay projects and even sculpture.

Art from the heartAnd painting with other patients recovering from similar traumas makes for good companionship, says Young. “They really open up with the other artists,” he says. “They are smiling … they are enjoying it and they are talking more. They become hooked.”

Therapy can be hard and painful, but patients can forget about that when they are in the art program, says Rochelle Brace, the hospital’s senior recreational therapist.

“We try to hide the therapy,” she says. “I tell people all the time that if you feel like you are doing too much work then I’m not doing my job.”     

To raise funds for the program, the hospital holds an annual “Art from the Heart” exhibit and sale of original works of art created by patients, former patients and professional artists from the community. More than 500 works of art are displayed through the hospital’s first floor and lanai during the event.

“It’s gratifying for the patients to see the community coming to the exhibit and showing so much interest in what they do,” Brace says.

She says the arts program is tailored to each individual patient’s abilities. Some may paint with the brush in their mouth, but they all can express themselves despite of their disabilities.    

Through the years, more than 700 patients have benefitted from the program’s more than 70,000 art sessions. It’s been so effective that former patients have been coming back to the program for years.

Dennis Okada didn’t participate in the program until several years after he was discharged from the hospital. In 1986, the former double-black-belt martial artist suffered from decompression sickness while tank diving at 150 feet below sea level. He ended up at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific paralyzed from the waist down.

The hospital helped Okada begin his physical recovery and adjust to life as a paraplegic. But his biggest challenge was his emotional recovery.

Artwork is therapyA local mouth painter, who had lost the use of his arms and legs due to muscular dystrophy, encouraged Okada to check out the hospital’s Creative Arts Program. Okada has been an artist in the program for more than nine years.

“Painting has opened a door to unexpected surprises and an endless supply of satisfaction,” Okada says. “I started to look at things differently when I came back to the hospital. This is a place where there can be new life, new hope and new dreams.”   

Learn more about the program.