One of the first patients Laki Vazakas worked with in the Arts for Healing Program at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital used their time together to create a journey video that integrated poetic visuals of waterfalls and brick walls – “things that are strong, but also things that give life,” Laki says. He remembers this patient, who is living with sickle cell anemia, saying that people had always told her she was “so strong” in confronting her condition. But she never felt strong until reflecting on the movie she had made. The program and the video making process helped this young woman understand how she saw herself, as strong and supple, bending but not breaking in the face of her condition.
Vazakas started working at Yale after meeting the founder of Arts for Healing, Janice Baker, at an arts education conference. “I had never worked in a children’s hospital or any hospital for that matter,” Vazakas says. The two started talking and before he knew it, Janice had invited Laki to visit the hospital, first spending a week with oncology patients, and another week with sickle cell patients.
Now eleven years and many grants later, Vazakas splits his time between Arts for Healing at Yale New Haven and the Creative Arts Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, where he helps patients confronting life-threatening illnesses create journey videos. As a filmmaker, his goal is to helps kids with powerful stories share their experiences and also to help viewers understand the intensity of what these kids and teens go through.
“The process often helps these folks to build resilience, as the hospital becomes both a place of treatment and creativity,” he says.
Vazakas teaches kids to take pictures or video, then to transform these images into short, stand-alone projects that kids can take away as DVDs. “Generally they’re not feeling their best and taking away an artifact helps kids feel a real sense of achievement,” Laki says.
Vazakas recently worked at Boston Children’s with a teenage boy whose parents had been told by doctors that their son would never walk. But after multiple surgeries, the young man is walking and living a full, vibrant life. Vazakas explained they created the piece in two hours, integrating family photos and using the patient’s performed classical music as a key element in the soundtrack. The patient’s video concluded with footage of him walking arm in arm with his father.
“I like to see their perspective on the hospital environment,” Laki says. “Then through editing they can transform it, and in the process gain mastery over their experience.”
At Yale, Vazakas has also begun to engage families in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit create videos.
“Parents are there for a long time, and many are using their iPhone to chronicle their child’s journey. Often I utilize a song with a heartbeat recording created by one of our music therapists as the soundtrack to a family video expression,” he says.
Laki even uses video to help physicians, medical students and residents at Yale see the medical experience through a patient’s eyes. “I had some of the residents go into a hospital room, gave them a camera, and had them explore the patient perspective by getting in a bed – it helps them feel the patient’s vulnerability,” he says. One resident resolved to meet young patients at eye level and connect, instead of being a daunting presence looming over the patient.
“We still have a long way to go with societal attitudes toward illness and in creating a language around being sick,” Vazakas says. “I’m fortunate to be invited into sacred space in the two hospitals, and I hope my work helps kids and families to give them some choice and control in places where they are afforded little of either.”
Through video and the compassionate process of making art, Laki Vazakas hopes to help pediatric patients, parents and professionals see beyond sickness and hospital rooms to look at life with new eyes.
Garth Sundem is a parent, husband, and author of books including “Real Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change”.