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October 11, 2018

Doctors Dance, Paint and Create Their Way to Better Care

By In the Loop

It's not unusual for doctors at Mayo Clinic to get together and discuss shared interests. For one group of residents who gather monthly, the goal is improved mental health through art therapy.


There were no tutus or pointe shoes, no stage and no audience. But there were feet in first position, arms above heads in fifth. And a room of doctors getting their ballet on.

It wasn't a typical meeting. But that was exactly the pointe. (Er, point.) The group had gathered, as they do once each month, to embrace their inner artists. "I found residency pretty challenging and my co-residents felt the same way," Tasneem Kaleem, M.D., tells us. Dr. Kaleem, a fifth-year resident in radiation oncology at Mayo Clinic's Florida campus, knew art therapy could improve mental health. So she developed a series of courses for her classmates with the support of her program director, Laura Vallow, M.D.

The program, launched in May 2017, has been a success, with participants reporting improved motivation and mood, and reduced stress and fatigue after each session. And Dr. Kaleem believes it has had an even more significant impact. "The purpose of art is to create empathy," she says. "As humans, we want to tell each other our stories. Art helps us understand each other's stories and creates empathy, which is important for physicians."

The program is a passion project for Dr. Kaleem, combining her love of science and humanities, which she's had since childhood. "My father was a chemist," she tells us. "He got me pink goggles and would take me to work with him on Take Your Daughter to Work Day." Her mother has a degree in British literature and encouraged her daughter's artistic pursuits. "She has pictures I scribbled when I was a year old," Dr. Kaleem says. "If I showed an interest, she cultivated it."

In college, Dr. Kaleem majored in biology but also took classes in dance, theology and art. She spent time in Italy, studying the work of Michelangelo and da Vinci, and was inspired by the way they combined art and science, studying cadavers to perfect their sculptures and sketches. As a medical student, Dr. Kaleem adopted their process. "I realized I was a very visual learner, so I would go to the anatomy lab and draw all the anatomical structures we studied in anatomy," she tells us.

The first time Dr. Kaleem visited Mayo Clinic, she was astonished to see a large painting by Joan Miro. "I couldn't believe the hospital had this famous painting just hanging on the wall," she says. Dr. Kaleem thought it signaled something important about the institution. "It said to me that Mayo was looking for staff who are well-rounded, multidimensional," she tells us. "I thought it would be a good place for me to grow into the kind of physician I wanted to be."

Five years later, it has done just that. And in those years, Dr. Kaleem has come to believe Mayo's emphasis on humanities signals something important to patients, too. "The art makes patients recognize that we see them as more than just a person with diabetes or cancer," she says. "It shows we care about more than their diagnosis and are here to listen to their stories."

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Tags: Dr. Laura Vallow, Dr. Tasneem Kaleem, Employee Stories, Humanities in Medicine, Mayo Clinic in Florida, Radiation Oncology

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