How OT students find connection and empathy through art

Picture of two pieces of artwork-beaded lungs and a painting of red nail polish

When Janessa Raspante reflects upon what inspired her to pursue a career in occupational therapy, she can point to several influential experiences that subtly led her to this path. She was inspired by her high school anatomy teacher, an experienced physical therapist, who first introduced her to the possibility of majoring in exercise and wellness when she got to college. While pursuing that degree at Arizona State University, she discovered her true calling and began her doctorate in NAU’s occupational therapy program last year. 

Janessa Raspante standing on a staircase
Janessa Raspante

During her time with the program, she has had what she calls “the honor” of working with a donor body in NAU’s Human Anatomy class. Donors are commonly called cadavers—people who donate their bodies to educate future health care professionals—however, OTs prefer the term donor to respect their gift. 

During this anatomy class, which begins again later this month, occupational therapy, physical therapy and physician assistant students work side-by-side to learn about the interconnected nature of the human system. The class emphasizes that each human body truly is unique, something that cannot be fully appreciated with a textbook or a traditional lesson. And the gift that a donor bestows upon the students is not lost on them. At the end of each semester in the class, students seek to express their appreciation by reflecting on their experience with their respective donors through an art piece, something Raspante had the opportunity to be a part of. 

Raspante’s artwork was inspired not only by her experience in the class, but also by her multicultural background. Her piece involved the use of beads. The process of creating the art helped deepen her appreciation of her donor and the human body.  

Ayanna Ravia standing in a hallway
Ayanna Ravia

“Creating the art and engaging with the beads themselves made me think of how each body system interacts and impacts the other, and that each body is different, not in a negative or positive way. It helped me see how that should be considered when treating patients,” Raspante said.  

Another occupational therapy student who participated in the class is Ayanna Ravia. She, too, reflected on her experience through art at the semester’s end. The medium she chose for her piece was red paint—red nail polish specifically—as a nod to her donor’s red toenail polish.  

While I practiced empathy and understanding for my donor, seeing her painted toenails for the first time is an image that will stay with me throughout my career and life. Her painted toes represented her personality, which allowed me to feel more connected to her,” Ravia said.  

Ravia’s experience in the anatomy class deepened her understanding of the inner workings of nerves and muscles and helped propel her into a new plane of understanding about the human body, however, it was the lesson on empathy that proved to be most meaningful. 

“It really hit home that these donors were individuals. They were people with families, stories and a legacy,” she said. “The striking image of red nail polish on my donor represents in microcosm this very thing; it allows for one to truly appreciate that these are people who laughed, cried and smiled just like the rest of us, and who are sorely missed by their loved ones.”  

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Alex Fischer and Julius Happonen | College of Health and Human Services

NAU Communications