Art transforms the trauma of illness for teens

Playwright Aaron Jafferis and fellow performers use rap, spoken-word, and song to dramatize stories of hospitalized teens.
Playwright Aaron Jafferis and fellow performers use rap, spoken-word, and song to dramatize stories of hospitalized teens.

It was an unusual scene in the Donald J. Cohen Auditorium at the Child Study Center on May 7. Next to the podium where Grand Rounds are delivered stood three microphones and music stands in a row. A young woman strummed the guitar on one end while a beat-box artist tested his mic on the other. The seats filled and the audience members quieted to a hush in anticipation of a different kind of lecture.

Dr. Andres Martin, the Riva Ariella Ritvo Professor in the Child Study Center, stepped to the podium to introduce the first in a series of lectures supported by The Max Ritvo ‘13 and Alan B. Slifka ’51 Program for the Medical Humanities at Yale Child Study Center. The program invites an artist to campus annually to “support the experience of psychiatric and medical illness in youth” with their work. 

The inaugural lecturer, Aaron Jafferis, is a playwright, hip-hop theater maker, and former poet-in-residence at the Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital’s Arts for Healing Program. During his talk — “Changing a Life Sentence: Adolescents Use Hip-Hop and Poetry to Transform from Objects into Subjects” — Jafferis and a trio of artists accompanying him shared the art and stories of hospitalized teens through a mix of rap, spoken-word, beat box, folk song, and audio recordings of youth.

To open the lecture, Jafferis posed a question at the heart of his work with teens: “As an antidote to the passivity, mechanization, and loss of self that may occur in hospital patients and us caregivers can the act of creation, especially the word-based, music-based creation of poetry and hip-hop, liberate us, activate us, turn us from object to subject?”

The answer came in a series of performances, based on the experience of teens Jafferis interacted with at the hospital or on characters in his upcoming play, “How to Break,” about teens redefining their identities as they struggle with being sick.

Playing the part of Joelle, a 17-year-old with sickle cell disease, Jafferis rapped about the teen’s experience coping with treatments like blood transfusion and symptoms like nausea that felt beyond her control. That sense of limitation was captured in playful lyrics and song with the refrain:

In the hospital
where nothing is optional
choices impossible
when you’re in the hospital …   

Joelle’s song challenged the idea of patients as passive recipients or spectators, turning them instead into active agents in their own care.

He also performed a rap by Javier, a teen whose treatment involves a pacemaker. Javier initially describes the device as a UFO. After the pacemaker is implanted under his skin, he refers to his transformed self as R2-D2, the droid from “Star Wars.” Jafferis noted how, through rhyme, Javier refashioned his identity from “object” of medical care into “subject” of his own narrative.

In one of the audio recordings Jafferis shared, a teen in the psychiatric wing of the hospital recited her poem “I’m Broken,” about depression. As the patient, Hailey, read lines from the poem, such as “Depression is a broken glass shattered into tiny pieces,” other patients and staff chimed in to amplify lines they identified with. Through that experience, Hailey expressed her pain and also turned from “care receiver” to “caregiver,” by providing insight and connection with others, noted Jafferis.

Toward the end of the lecture, Jafferis and his collaborators presented one of the more poignant performances from his play. Through a mix of song and spoken word, they explored the challenge of a teen, Ana, wresting with whether to accept a bone marrow transplant from her younger brother or to decline the costly treatment. The song begins with her using the word “well” to convey both the effect of treatment on her body, and the state of health that a transplant would bring:

My bones are like a desert well, well
This chemo makes them dry as hell, hell
The doctors got me in a spell, spell
Say only a transplant can make me well

During the course of the performance, in which Ana goes from refusing treatment to choosing it, she asks the question, “Does love make you well?”

Jafferis closed the lecture by suggesting that the creation of art and meaning helps youth overcome the trauma of illness and become active in their own care. He described young people as turning from “spectators” into “spect-actors” in their care and in the creation of their own identities.

Stan Possick, M.D., Laurie Cardona, Psy.D., Frank Dato, Riva Ariella Ritvo, Ph.D., Linda Mayes, M.D., and Andrés Martin, M.D.,
Faculty pose at the event. From left: Stan Possick, M.D., Laurie Cardona, Psy.D., Frank Dato, Riva Ariella Ritvo, Ph.D., Linda Mayes, M.D., and Andrés Martin, M.D., M.P.H.

Dr. Linda Mayes, the Arnold Gesell Professor and director of the Yale Child Study Center, noted how “this new initiative, lovingly endowed by Dr. Riva Ariella Ritvo in memory of her late son and husband, weaves together the experience of serious and life-threatening illness in children and adolescents with the creative and life-affirming powers of their artistic expression.”

Martin added that the Max Ritvo ’13 and Alan B. Slifka ’51 Program for the Medical Humanities at the Yale Child Study Center is “named after two creative, larger-than-life, brilliant, whimsical, beautiful, generous, and gentle men, and will from here on serve as a living reminder of the power of our shared humanity, and of the healing power of children’s harnessed creativity.”

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