Medical centre dedicated to artists opens in Antwerp

Summary

A new health centre focuses on the total well-being of musicians, sculptors and dancers, seeking holistic approaches to career- and even life-threatening conditions

Suffering for their art

Hours of sitting in the same scrunched-up position as he worked on his sculptures resulted in chronic back pain for Ludwig Vandevelde. The money he earned, he ploughed into new works rather than medical insurance. Then disaster struck when he tried to lift a wooden block weighing several hundred kilos. Three operations later he was, he says, a physical and mental wreck.

“I was quite a successful sculptor in the 1980s and ’90s,” he says. “That means I was practising my sculpture full-time and these works were shown to the international art market, in quite prominent galleries and museums. That didn’t mean I was earning big money, rather that I was surviving in a very competitive art world.”

After the accident, life for Vandevelde became very difficult. “I couldn’t concentrate and work in the studio. I lost contact with my galleries, museums, critics and friends, and I was completely isolated,” he says. “Medical treatment cost a lot of money that I didn’t have. My wife couldn’t stand this situation and left me. At one point, I felt so completely empty that I asked a doctor for euthanasia.”

Vandevelde’s story is all too common in the art world, and that’s why Antwerp University Hospital and the University of Antwerp have recently opened a multidisciplinary expertise centre for the prevention and treatment of health complaints in artists. The goal of Antwerp HeArts (Healthcare for Artists) is to provide a holistic approach to their medical problems.

Catch-22

The centre will cater for the full gamut of artists: jazz musicians suffering from tinnitus, singers with voice problems, musicians with focal dystonia (a neuromuscular disorder that can cause cramps so bad that a violinist, for example, would no longer be able to play) and dancers with chronic back pain. What’s important is that the centre will address their whole health and well-being.

“At Antwerp HeArts, we are particularly interested in artists’ diseases, including musculoskeletal injuries and chronic pain and also loss of hearing or other complaints. We are also particularly interested in a multi-disciplinary approach, looking at the psychological part,” says Nathalie Roussel, a co-ordinator of the centre. 

Dancers, for example, are freelancers and their careers are short. They aren’t going to be dancing until they’re 65

- Nathalie Roussel

Key factors in this psychological distress include things such as loss of work for these people who are often freelancers, fear about what will happen to their career and consequent financial problems. “We think it’s important to see their problems as a whole,” she says. “If necessary, we can then collaborate with psychologists. Dancers, for example, are freelancers and their careers are short. They aren’t going to be dancing until they’re 65.”

Getting artists to seek help early enough is a further challenge. If they seek help for medical complaints, they can develop a reputation for being injury-prone, meaning they don’t get work. If they leave it too long, other complaints can set in. Roussel explains that chronic lower back pain in dancers can quickly lead to other joint problems because of a lack of strength in their trunk.

Even when they are ready to come forward for help, until now, it has been with mixed success due to the complicated and multi-faceted nature of their problems. Vandevelde says of his own experience: “As a patient, you’re in the hands of one specialist, who doesn’t know what the others are capable of. One has to find out every possible solution himself.”

Patient’s identity

Roussel says these issues were a large part of what prompted the university and the hospital to open the centre. Putting different aspects of medical care under one roof will, they hope, lead to better prevention. They also hope to lead research in some underexplored areas like focal dystonia “It’s not useful to just treat the hands. We have to look at the brain and central nervous system as well.”

As for getting artists to come forward sooner, Roussel says the centre is working closely with leading companies like Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, deFilharmonie orchestra, multi-disciplinary artist Jan Fabre, the Antwerp School of Arts and the Toneelhuis theatre. “We hope that through these collaborations, the threshold for them to seek help will be lower.”

Vandevelde, who is now head of sculpture at Hogeschool Gent, gave his testimony to support the development of Antwerp HeArts. After 10 years of suffering, he was finally put on track to recovery with an individualised treatment of diet, medication, yoga and meditation, prescribed by the doctor he previously went to for euthanasia.

“I feel relieved and thankful that this awful period is behind me,” he says. “On the other hand, I still regret that I had to suffer, unnecessarily, for so many years. With the good guidance of a generalist who is interested in his patients’ well-being [instead of the focus on a specialisation] my problem would have been solved much earlier.”

In his view, HeArts will tackle the core problems for artists, including prevention, a combined recovery programme, medical care that allows patients to recoup costs, and, crucially, an awareness of artists’ needs. “At HeArts, they are very much aware of the fact that the artistic practice is the patient’s identity.”

Photo: Dancers in Opera Ballet Vlaanderen’s production of Bolero
© Filip Van Roe