AHA! Connects AHA! at St Martha’s Regional Hospital

AHA! CONNECTS!    July 1, 2023
AHA! at St Martha’s Regional Hospital

Music Therapy

Since our beginning, AHA! has had a presence at St Martha’s (SMRH). In celebration of November, 2023, AHA!’s first Arts Health Month, AHA! invited Tom Curry, a music therapist from Antigonish, to return home for the month and work 8 hours/week at SMRH. It was all we could afford. Thankfully, he agreed. The CEO at the time was enthusiastically supportive, but confirmed there was no funding for him. Our instructions to Tom? Make yourself indispensable. And he did. By the end of the first week, unit managers were calling asking how they could keep him. Patients’ moods had improved; they were better engaged with each other and with their care plans; staff morale had improved. AHA! funded Tom for 16 months thereafter, while managers and administration found funding for him, at which time GASHA (the previous health authority) took over his funding.  Within months, the health authorities rolled into one provincial health authority, and so Tom became a NSHealth employee.  As of last year, NSHealth funds two part time music therapists at SMRH: Rebecca MacDonald now works in Palliative Care and Tom is still practicing music therapy in other units at SMRH.

See Tom Curry’s Reflections

Tom Curry Reflections 01Tom Curry Reflections 02

This video was created by Corinne Dunphy as an arts-based evaluation of Tom’s work at SMRH:


With the success of music therapy at SMRH, AHA! decided to offer visual art at the hospital as well. Art Care has been offered intermittently since 2014 depending on artist availability and hospital access (restricted during the pandemic). In those 9 years, Noella Murphy, Corinne Dunphy, Rachel Power, Kimberley Williams, Shelley Long and Maureen St. Clair have all created visual art with patients and occasionally with staff.  Some created community art projects with patients and staff; installations of art created were displayed at various community sites. As of next month, a new artist will be making art with patients: please join us in welcoming Emily Chaytor to our team!

The paper crane is a symbol of hope and healing in challenging times. Patients, loved ones and staff were invited to write messages of hope, love and encouragement on origami paper, then fold it into a crane. These were sprayed with a clear ‘glow in the dark’ paint and a weather protectant, then became part of an installation in the hospital garden. This project was created by Rachel Power.

“Light and Peace” communal artwork facilitated by Rachel Power

Shelley had the difficult task of facilitating Art Care throughout the pandemic. We are most grateful to her for all she was able to do in difficult circumstances: for the remarkable difference she made in the lives of those with whom she worked and for her advocacy for the position. Shelley made the most of the hours she was unable to be physically present in the hospital, contributing several posts to our blog on the AHA! website, encouraging everyone to explore their creativity during that time: https://www.artshealthantigonish.org/category/blog/get-creative/

 Reflection by Noella Murphy:

As one of the earliest projects of AHA!, I had the opportunity to be mentored by Dr. John Graham-Pole as Art Care Facilitator at SMRH. He guided me in approaching different units in the hospital to offer art as respite care.  I am trained in both visual art and clowning/theatre, so the plan was that I would visit each space, flexible with my arts offering, depending on the patient.

After meeting with department heads, I decided to focus on the Mental Health Unit (MHU). Originally, I had been nervous about working there but the staff made me feel most welcome and I began to look forward to my sessions. In the MHU, I would meet one-on-one with patients but I also had a weekly open art session. Every week I came prepared with an activity, often a group activity, and would just set myself up in the common area and invite patients to join me. As art was optional, sometimes I only had one person while other times there’d be a large group. Although I went prepared with ideas, I was ready choose what to engage with depending on participants. To start I’d have a big piece of paper and draw big squiggles on it and then invite everyone to fill in the shapes. Even if someone said “I’m not an artist”, this was non-threatening enough that everyone would join in. Often the conversation would help me choose what to do next. This would vary from working on adult coloring pages, to seasonal crafts, clay, painting etc., but occasionally I’d have someone who didn’t want to create but was happy to talk. When this happened, I’d ask them to choose what I should draw while we talked, often chatting about their relationship with being creative. Often older adults commented that art was thought of as something that wasn’t worth doing unless you were good at it. The most satisfying part of those conversations was when the person joined in or asked for art supplies to try on their own. To reap the therapeutic benefits of the arts, I conveyed that it was about the process and not the product. It’s disheartening how frequently people think that if they’re not naturally good at something creative then they shouldn’t bother trying. The secret is that art is ‘work’ too!

Sometimes I would work with a patient on bigger projects, meeting with them more regularly and that would often start conversations about their struggles, or their trauma. Although I wanted to continue these conversations, they were going in a direction that was out of my depth and I’d change the subject. I realized that though art can be therapeutic in and of itself, I was not trained as a therapist and therefore wasn’t qualified either to offer advice or even just listen to patients’ struggles. I would talk to one of the MHU team members to ensure they’d be able to continue those conversations with someone trained to help. These experiences helped me to realize that in order to continue working in these environments, I needed more training. I wanted to become an art therapist. I was frustrated not being able to help people more, so I decided to go back to school to pursue further studies.

That didn’t go quite as planned, but I did eventually end up finishing my undergraduate degree and am still open to the possibility of training to become an art therapist. What I learned during my time working at the hospital has informed my work and life in general and am very fortunate to have had this opportunity.

 Reflection by Corinne Dunphy:

In the past ten years, I worked for AHA in two different capacities, one predominately looking inward and one mainly looking outward. Firstly, I created several promotional videos for AHA! on the value of their programming at the time. Secondly, I was an Art Care Facilitator at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital.

Upon reflection of working as an Art Care Facilitator I fondly remember the boost of energy the box of art goodies would bring. I tried to keep a dependable routine in terms of scheduling and programming as many participants were shy about trying new things. But with the predictability of the sessions, they were able to get past their vulnerability and focus on the process of creation. We used their artwork as a vessel to hold conversations about their past, their worries, and their relationships. This role had me looking inward at my own experiences and how art practice can inform my own mental well-being. It also opened my eyes to the powerful roles we can play as a community to enhance the lives of elders, often in lonely, difficult situations.

I am so lucky to have had these invaluable experiences with Arts Health Antigonish! It has been six years that I’ve lived away from Antigonish. I recently moved back and am slowly coming out of the fog of being a parent of two little wild things. Parenting has taught me so much, and a confidence comes with aging. AHA! has also taught me much. I look forward to raising my children in a community that champions community health in more ways than one.

 By Maureen St. Clair:

 The Language of Being Human is a collaborative piece, a paper quilt reflecting the past three months as AHA’s artist in residence. It has been a profound honor to be in community with you all here at SMRH. Our uniting took place through staff workshops, listening circles, one on one heart to heart conversations, informal, individual and collective grief tending circles, walking the halls and chilling on elevators! We danced, collaged, played, wrote poetry, sang, shared challenges and joys, laughed and cried. In short, we engaged in the art of being human!

The 13th Century Poet Rumi’s poem, The Guest House is positioned deliberately in the middle of this art piece as a guide in understanding all emotions; understanding emotions as guests protecting, loving, teaching, preparing us to love bigger and bolder ourselves and each other!

Big Shout Out to the folks who were collaborators to this paper quilt! Giving thanks to you dear ones for your love, courage and capacity to hold one another in all our human complexities and within beloved community!


With the assistance of Justin Gregg and amazing local photographers, Bernice MacDonald, Denise Davies, Margaret and Mandy Boudreau, Peter Jowett and James Smeaton, AHA! created a 1-hour program of local photographs, set to relaxing music. This is available to people in Palliative Care and in the Internal Medicine Office waiting area at SMRH.

Photos by Margaret Boudreau.