Jan 01, 2013
By David McDonald

Creative expression in abundance

Lynda McLeod encourages nurses to practise self-care through art

Teckles Photography Inc.

Lynda McLeod doesn’t mince words about the importance of art in her life.

“Without it, I couldn’t be involved in nursing,” says the 54-year-old educator and artist. “I couldn’t take the pain and the sadness and the discord you encounter as a nurse without having a place to leave it all behind at the end of the day.”

McLeod points to research showing that simply being exposed to art can provide a host of benefits for patients — among them are lower levels of anxiety, a reduced need for pain medication and improved postoperative recovery times.

“And in actually doing art,” she says, “the same kind of healing happens. You’re in a sweet spot…a happy, joyful place.”

McLeod was born into a creative family in Orillia, Ont. Her father painted; her mother was an accomplished craftsperson.

A self-described “predominantly right-brained” person, McLeod struggled in high school. “I’m a 100 per cent visual learner,” she says. “The only course I really did well in was biology, because I could draw it.”

She loved art but didn’t display exceptional talent and was dissuaded from pursuing it as a career. Instead, after graduation, she found work at the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, helping to care for kids with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities. The head nurse, struck by the young woman’s compassionate way with children, suggested she might have the makings of a good nurse.

After earning her diploma in 1979, McLeod landed a job in the ICU at a Toronto hospital.

“It was intense,” she says of the working environment in which she and her fellow newbies found themselves. “We didn’t know what to do with our feelings about what had happened on a typical day. We’d go out for a drink and try to talk about it and unwind. But I couldn’t get rid of the images.” Mental snapshots of patients in pain and distress haunted her sleep.

Instinctively, McLeod sought out a pottery class. Her instructor told her there was literature to support the notion that creative expression can help people process troubling events. Sure enough, McLeod’s nightmares subsided. It was her first direct experience with the therapeutic powers of art.

McLeod continued her career in ICU. But, by the late 1980s, she was ready for a change. Again, her artistic side came to the rescue. Up against a more experienced colleague for a nurse educator position in a hemodialysis unit, McLeod demonstrated how she’d use her own drawings as a teaching tool. She believes that’s what earned her the job.

In 1997, the McLeods — Lynda, her husband and their two young daughters — moved to Victoria, where Peter had landed a position as director of outdoor education at a boarding school. Lynda joined Camosun College’s nursing faculty. It’s a job she loved from the start. “When I close the classroom door, I know something exciting is going to happen.”

McLeod is equally enthusiastic about the family’s West Coast lifestyle. Their home is located a few blocks from Juan de Fuca Strait. “We’ve never looked back. We can actually ski and kayak on the same day, and maybe do a little fishing.”

Although McLeod had dabbled in watercolours over the years, it was a series of wilderness adventures in her adoptive province that pushed her art to a whole new level. Somewhere around this time, she also became a proponent of art’s salutary effects. What really motivated her to spread the word, she says, were the results of the 2005 National Survey of the Work and Health of Nurses, detailing what she refers to as the “terrible” state of nurses’ health in this country. “I didn’t want to become a statistic,” she says. “So I started thinking of ways to use self-care to help build healthier work environments. And using art seemed so natural.”

In 2007, McLeod launched Art by Nurses, a website to foster artistic expression and reflection among her professional colleagues — and promote their ideas and endeavours. Four years later, she mounted a group show by nurse artists, at Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital. Healing Hallways was slated to run a month or two. A year later, it’s still there, providing a respite for patients and staff from the exigencies of hospital life. Her dream, she says, is to have similar shows in hospitals across the country. “If I can get funding,” she says, “I’ll put them in every province.”

In day-to-day discussions McLeod has with undergrads, she hammers home the importance of self-care and talks up the role art can play. “I weave it into every class I teach,” she says.

In recent years, McLeod has taken her message beyond the classroom. Operating out of her home studio, she has begun a second career as a co-active coach, guiding clients in identifying and developing their creativity. These aspiring artists and writers want to get in touch with their inner Emily Carr or Alice Munro. Currently, she is working with seven nurses, a number she hopes will grow over time.

“I try to walk my talk,” McLeod says. “I truly believe in self-care as the way to stay in nursing and remain engaged and healthy.”

10 questions with Lynda McLeod

What is one word you would use to describe yourself? 

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
My impatience 

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Being a mother. I am so proud of my two daughters; they have become spirited, creative, independent freethinkers who are grounded in social justice   

“If I had more free time, I would….”
Draw more, read more, and paint every day

Where did you go on your last vacation?
I kayaked in Newfoundland. It is a hauntingly beautiful region

What is the one place in the world you’d most like to visit?
I want to visit some of the pristine places that are left in our world. Bhutan is first on my list

What is your biggest regret?
I should have travelled right after nursing school 

If there was a single person who inspired you to become a nurse, who was it?
My mum. She was my biggest fan. She saw something in me that I didn’t

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
In my first job, a feisty head nurse encouraged me to move around and get different experiences under my belt

What do you like least about being a nurse?
The slow pace of change philosophically within our profession. We could be so powerful if we joined hands in defining to the public what nursing is

David McDonald is an Ottawa Writer and Filmmaker.
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