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Students/Faculty News Stephen Lanzi September 15, 2022

Dr. Hon Yuen has short black har and wears glasses. He's wearing a white shirt, black blazer, and multicolored tie in muted shades of yellow, red, and other colors. Dr. Hon YuenThe area of research in garnering the power of arts in health is growing, and a CEDHARS faculty member is bringing his expertise in occupational therapy to the field.

The Craig H. Neilsen Foundation awarded Dr. Hon Yuen, professor of occupational therapy in UAB School of Health Professions, a two-year, $194,000 grant for the project “Creating a Healing Community Festival.”

After a successful pilot program of combining creative writing with expressive movement and dance, UAB Arts in Medicine is continuing its work with Yuen to address the grief associated with spinal cord injury and paralysis.

Phillip Klebine, knowledge translation director in UAB’s Spain Rehabilitation Center, introduced Yuen to the concept of grief in SCI, while Regi Carpenter, a storyteller and performance artist, gave Yuen the idea of using storytelling as a therapeutic intervention.

This project came out of a pair of programs: the expressive writing collaboration between UAB’s School of Health Professions and Arts in Medicine and a partnership between AIM and the Stuart Pimsler Dance and Theater Company.

Last October, AIM and Stuart Pimsler put on a performance piece called “Raising Our Voices: Stories of Cancer Told Through Movement, Music, and Voice.” The program provided an opportunity for people in all different stages of their cancer journey to come together and tell their story in a way that is therapeutic and healing for them.

Suzanne Costello, the co-artistic director of Stuart Pimsler, facilitated the process of bringing people’s lived experiences to a performance by co-writing the monologues or creating the choreography. Throughout the project, a theme emerged for the participants in which they wanted to develop a way to be a source of support for others who may be going through similar experiences of grief.

“One of the thoughts coming out of that was why don’t we see if we could do a collaborative piece with Stuart Pimsler Dance and Theater with this population of people with not only spinal cord injuries, but physical disabilities,” said Kimberly Kirklin, director of UAB Arts in Medicine.

The 28 participants in the pilot cancer performance project are being invited back to join in this new project. Additionally, AIM is expanding the 10-week expressive writing program, so there will be a new cohort of writers that will be folded into the SCI project.

The project will culminate with a performance piece in October 2024 in the UAB Alys Stephens Center. Participants from across the country will be brought to Birmingham for two weeks leading up to the event to rehearse and put the finishing touches on the project. Kirklin said the hope is this will foster community connnections. Participants unable to travel will be able to have their part recorded to incorporate multimedia aspects into the live performance.

“It’s an opportunity for them to tell their own story the way they want to tell it – it’s their story,” Kirklin said. “To communicate that to the general public, ‘This is my experience. People may have preconceived notions of what it’s like to live with a disability, and this is my experience and what I want you to know.’ It can be cathartic to share your own experiences in front of a group of people.”

The research team working on the project believes the group participation and writing will help induce a sense of vulnerability, which is key in the expressive process.

“This will be a good opportunity for them to not just be talking, but also acting out their feelings,” Yuen said. “I hate to say it, but I don’t think the 10 weeks would be enough to make a huge change, but the additional intervention will make it more powerful and sustained.”

“Kirklin said AIM’s partnership with Yuen and SHP is exciting because the field of research in arts and health is growing.

“It’s really important to us to have that research component to what we do,” she said.

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