Breathe and I

Rosie has been our Interim Director since October 2018, after completing a university placement with us in Spring 2018. She leaves us on 19 December to take up a new role at ‘Y Lab’, a joint venture between Nesta and Cardiff University, developing an arts and health innovation programme in her native Wales. Here, Rosie shares her thoughts and experiences of her time with Breathe.

What two years these have been.

I first came into contact with Breathe in January 2018, when my good friend Daisy Fancourt recommended me for a placement with them whilst I was doing my MA at Goldsmiths. I’ve been lucky enough to work in arts and health for around seven years and had known of Breathe by name and reputation, but had not come into contact with the team personally. I was keen to find out what Breathe was all about.

Daisy spoke about the organisation with great warmth. She described them as a kind and passionate team, driven by a desire to improve peoples’ experiences of healthcare – and transform lives. She also talked about the renowned success of their programmes in delivering high quality arts projects that generated clinical, research-proven benefits for the people that take part. It sounded amazing! I set up to meet Yvonne and managed to convince her to offer me the placement. Then, later in 2018, she asked if I’d step in for her whilst she stepped back to focus on her own health.

Everything Daisy told me about Breathe is true – and so, so much more besides.

This is a remarkable team, running remarkable projects. Working in a delicate, complex ecosystem of arts and health, Yvonne and our team are ever aware of the balance between the creative and open nature of arts experiences and the standardised and meticulous demands of healthcare environments. They walk this line with care and consideration, yet with an innovative spirit that seeks to do things differently. And it works.

Above all, this team put people at the heart of everything they do. The staff choir at Guy’s & St Thomas’s hospital, for example, came about because we asked the staff what they thought would help them at work. With our new ‘Breathe Dance’ initiative, we’ve responded to physiotherapists’ desire to find a more engaging – and effective – way of delivering Strength & Balance classes for older people. Or our ‘Breathing Spaces’ in wards and clinic spaces, which offer people a vital moment to regain a little part of themselves, through engaging in creativity for a short time in hospital. It’s been a joy and a pleasure to see these programmes grow and thrive, and a privilege to experience first-hand the impact of this work on peoples’ lives.

Breathing Spaces at St Thomas’s Hospital

I’m also incredibly proud that, as a team, we’ve been able to nurture some really key relationships over the past year with both participants and supporters, notably our partnership with King’s College London, UCL and the Wellcome Trust, which has led to our amazing ‘Melodies for Mums’ service being part of the largest ever study into the impact of arts on our health.

I’ve also learned so much from talking to various NHS Commissioners about our programmes. Let it never be said that NHS commissioners are just ‘the money people’ – rarely have I met a group of people who are as committed to improving peoples’ lives as they are, and in the most challenging of environments where budget cuts continue to bite. A special mention goes to the teams at Gloucestershire CCG, Wansdworth CCG, Lambeth CCG and the South East London Local Maternity Services. I value and appreciate everything you do.

Breathe’s ‘Melodies for Mums’

 

I come from a musical background and therefore stepping into our Breathe Magic programme was one of the things I was most nervous about, as I’d not had much experience of magic as an art form, nor had I worked with disabled young people before. As complex and challenging as the magic programme is, I can safely say that this is this one of the most compelling examples I’ve seen of art applied to a long-time healthcare challenge. For years Occupational Therapists have often struggled to get young people with hemiplegia to engage in the hours of intensive therapy they need to improve their hand function, so the means by which learning engaging and fun magic tricks achieves this aim is, to me, perfect. But it’s so much more than that: I won’t ever forget sitting in the audience at The Magic Circle in August, watching a young person who had suffered a stroke a couple of years ago and whose hemiplegia made it very difficult for him to stretch out his arm. Despite the challenges he faced, there he was perfectly performing a piece of magic using a necklace that he held out with two equally straight arms and then handed to our patron Imelda Staunton. They both had the biggest smiles on their faces. Afterwards, his Mum wrote to us:

I feel that this is not enough but wanted to say an immense thank you to you both and the whole team for the most wonderful couple of weeks. My son has loved every minute and I think the magic show will go down as one of the most moving experiences of my long life! I had no idea how incredible the whole process would be – these last two years have been so tough, not just by what has happened to my son out of the blue but also by the constant fights we have had to go through to try to get the right care for him and feeling like most of the time people think we are mad to fight at all to get rehab and believe he can improve. Breathe has been a breath of fresh air… you believe in these children and that therapy works, and you have the proof. Thank you for all that you do, and for believing in these kids.

The benefits for these young people go SO far beyond just being able to stretch out an arm. These transformations are what drive the Breathe team to do more.

With Patrons at the final Breathe Magic Show

So, what will I take with me from my time at Breathe? I have learned to value fun, teamwork and human connection. I will miss this very special group of people; they are true experts and so caring, fun and dedicated with it. From them I’ve learned that storytelling is both an art and a gift; Breathe is alive with stories of people regaining both their strength and their identity, stories of people challenging themselves and discovering themselves through the arts and stories of healthcare professionals and NHS commissioners who share our values to their cores. We put thought and effort into how we share those stories and the feedback and support we get when we do has been incredibly inspiring. Working with our patrons and our donors has been an especially fun and inspiring part of this job and they will always have my deepest gratitude and admiration.

I know that the challenge to bring arts and health as a concept to the masses continues, as do questions of evaluation and cost efficiency. It’s also been a challenge – at times – to advocate for the artists and project managers who need time around the art to ensure projects are safe and high-quality, but who don’t always get that time allocated or funded. This remains a precarious sector, especially as we navigate the complexities and expectations – as well as the opportunities – around social prescribing.

But I believe the collective will is there; many more people now accept the idea that creativity is ‘good for us’ in more tangible ways. That’s a great thing, and something that I will take forward with me into my next role, along with a heart full of inspiring stories and a set of friends for life. To do arts and health well we need specialism, to navigate those boundaries and provide the care and attention, as well as the fun and inspiration, that changes lives. We need organisations like Breathe Arts Health Research.

My thanks go to Yvonne, Hannah, Tim, Grace, Adam, Georgia, Rosey, Skye, Annegret, Richard, Will, David, John, Sue, Daisy, Jim, Imelda, James and ALL our artists, volunteers, supporters, families and participants for their support over the past year.

With love and thanks,

Rosie