DAVENPORT — Deb Ralfs spends five hours a day, three days a week, receiving nutrient infusions at Genesis Health System in Davenport. Ralfs, who has Crohn’s disease, had much of her digestive system surgically removed 15 years ago, so she needs the infusions to survive. Most of the time, she spends the long hours in the center napping or watching television.
But on Mondays, she gets to virtually leave the hospital with the help of a robot named Genie. Instead of watching TV, she takes in the art at Davenport’s Figge Art Museum.
“I don’t like to sit still, but I’m forced to. It drives me nuts. I’ve got to be doing something,” Ralfs said.
The robot, a BeamPro, is in essence a camera and computer on wheels, able to facilitate a video chat and take the user on a virtual tour of its surroundings. The system is often used for teleconferencing and by people with disabilities.
At the Figge, Genie rolls from painting to painting, beaming the images back to the hospital and Ralfs, who can see then see the art from a laptop. Figge graduate assistant Brooke Wessel sits with Ralfs, steering the robot from the laptop as Ralfs chats with the docents leading the tour in the museum.
At the hospital, the person on the laptop can drive the robot, pointing its camera, zooming in on paintings and moving it around the gallery space. The patients can either take a guided tour or they can digitally wander on their own. The Figge has held the tours for Genesis patients on Mondays since April, with a brief hiatus over part of the summer.
Genesis Health System sponsors Genie for the Figge, which has leased it since mid-2015. It’s only this year that they started doing the art tours for infusion center patients, however, after partnering with Living Proof Exhibit, a local nonprofit focused on art therapy for those impacted by cancer. Most of the patients at the Genesis infusion center are there for chemotherapy.
“When you’re stuck in your chair, it gets wearing,” said Living Proof Exhibit executive director Pamela Crouch. “There are a lot of statistics that becoming involved in the arts reduces the stress hormone cortisol, which promotes healing.”
The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs supported the partnership between Genesis, the Figge and Living Proof Exhibit this year with a $7,898 grant to Living Proof Exhibit. They nonprofit hopes to expand the project in the future to other hospitals in the Quad Cities.
In the meantime, the Figge staff have been working out kinks like the best times for the tours — they currently hold them when the museum is closed to the public. They’ve also realized it is important to have someone on both ends, one to answer questions in the museum and one to help set up the laptop at the hospital. Some patients like to drive Genie themselves, while others are more comfortable if someone else drives it while they watch.
Figge director of education Melissa Mohr said when they first leased Genie, they tried using the robot for classroom outreach. But that wasn’t as needed, because they have funding for bus trips to bring students to the museum directly. She said Living Proof Exhibit was the missing link to connect with people who might otherwise not be able to visit the museum.
“Living Proof Exhibit reached out and said, ‘How can we get art to the people getting chemotherapy?” said Crouch. “This pilot program is allowing us to reach into the cancer centers. It’s a partnership made in nonprofit heaven.”
At the Figge, she gestured at the paintings in the museum’s “The American Scene” exhibit, featuring work by Grant Wood, Marvin Cone and others.
“Look at the vibrancy, the beauty. There is energy here in the art world, revitalizing and re-energizing people,” she said.
Ralf said she could feel that energy from her hospital chair. She used to paint, but she doesn’t see well anymore, due in part to some of the medication she takes and in part to cataracts.
“I really do miss it. It’s very relaxing and calming for the mind,” she said.
Though she can’t see all of the art as well as she would like, she enjoys talking with the docents who facilitate the tours. They share facts about Grant Wood’s life or Georgia O’Keefe’s techniques, and Ralfs asks questions and contributes tidbits of her own.
“It’s kind of like public television. There’s always something new to learn,” she said.
She said the experience lets her visit the Figge without concern that her medical problems will interfere.
“I can look at the art without worrying,” she said.
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