A brief for an art project to help calm a tense and fragmented team inadvertently turns the team into a community where people re-learn the joys of chatting and working together as friends, not just colleagues


During the COVID-19 pandemic, the team at Ward 11A had few or no in-person meetings. Comprising largely Rehabilitation Medicine specialists, nurses and therapists, the team also had minimal interaction with each other because of safe-distancing measures.

Masked up and often tense at the prospect of catching the virus, the team became increasingly stressed and isolated. Noticing this sorry state of affairs, Rehabilitation Medicine head, Dr Geoffrey Sithamparapillai Samuel enlisted the help of Art Therapist Phylaine Toh to think of something fun and relaxing for the team to do.

“People had retreated into their own ‘silos’. They thought and did their work within their silos. We lacked interaction as we couldn’t have face-to-face meetings,” said Dr Samuel, who is in charge of the ward. 

The team seemed to have lost its way amidst the travails of the past two years, and the staff were going about their work methodically without really understanding what their colleagues really did or what the team was about.

“When asked what rehab does for patients, no one could really come up with an answer,” said Dr Samuel, who led the team in conceptualising their mission or responsibility as a rehab team to patients. Dr Samuel also wanted a wall painting to be installed in Ward 11A to visualise that ideal, and tasked Phylaine to lead its execution.

Phylaine quickly recognised that the best way of building teamwork and camaraderie was to involve every member of the team in the creation of the art piece – right from the very beginning. She set up a committee, and guided the members, who came from each discipline, to discuss the nuts and bolts of the project.


The mural by Rehab Ward 11A


After two months, the committee came up with an illustration for Ward 11A staff to paint together. Underscoring their aim to maximise patients’ functional recovery by delivering the best rehab services, the illustration shows a patient in a wheelchair starting a journey along a path that winds through a park, before reaching the bright and hopeful rays of the yellow sun.

The mural, illustrated by Senior Speech Therapist, Rachel Chia, is filled with meaning. Different elements pepper the tableau, representing the different care that the patient receives, and intertwine with each other, reflecting the harmony and closeness the various disciplines have in working together to help patients in their journey of recovery.

Some images are easier to decipher: the keyboard represents music therapists, the paint palette represents art therapists, the hand rails for the physiotherapists, while the hands refer to doctors who guide and are guided by their patients. Other images have more profound meanings: the street lamps represent the nurses who bring light and hope to patients, the person trimming the hedges represents the freedom that occupational therapists bring to patients as they regain functions for daily living, while the trees with spreading boughs are for the medical social workers who provide patients with shelter.

Even the medium used – acrylic paint – has clinical implications. “Through the art therapy lens, the medium stimulates the sensory aspects of the brain and brings calm to the artist,” said Phylaine. Additionally, contributing meaningfully to a workplace community project has been observed to increase the enduring feelings of satisfaction, pride, and joy; as well as a heightened sense of wellness and purpose in the work place.

“The committee settled on 10 open studio sessions facilitated by Phylaine at the Rehabilitation Centre in SingHealth Tower. Each open studio session is 4-hours long and staff from the multidisciplinary team are welcomed to drop in based on their availability. The studio is a ‘safe’ space with art materials for the team to come in to make art. Once the mural is completed, participants can continue to utilise the space to create whatever they want, and the art therapists are there to facilitate their reflective process,” said Phylaine.

“Besides facilitating their painting ideas, the art therapists also guide each group, asking very intentional questions to create mindful and meaningful conversations around building a community,” said Phylaine. It is the vision of this exchanging of life stories, learning of new skills, and meaning-making that a new spark is ignited in the hearts of the multidisciplinary team.

The feedback has been generally positive. “People who have attended the sessions said they generally had good experience, and enjoyed the time at the studio,” said Dr Sangita Kuparasundram, Senior Resident.

Indeed, for Ward 11A Senior Nurse Manager Tan Leh Hong, the sessions have eased her tensions and she has become less stressed at work.  “When nurses start our shift, we are often tense and focused on following our patient care routines carefully and quickly. I used to stay back after my shift to try and finish my work so that I can go home quickly,” said SNM Leh Hong. But she began looking forward to the art sessions to relax and bond with her colleagues.

Dr Jimmy Tan, Resident Physician, said that healthcare workers tend to be “selfless” and forget to care for themselves while caring for their patients. “The art sessions are a way for staff to relax and bond, which are in a sense a form of caring for ourselves. With the conversations, it’s a starting point,” he said.

“Just as important, the art project builds better team work and, hopefully, brings everyone together for the patient,” added Dr Sangita.

QUIZ (Open to SGH staff only)

LighterNotes invites you to look at the painting closely and guess which profession some of the elements represent (pick any three). For instance, the keyboard, paint palette, hand rails, hands, street lamps, person trimming the hedges, trees with spreading boughs. Send your answers to lighternotes@sgh.com.sg by 30 Dec 2022. First 10 correct entries will win a mystery prize.


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