The Cage – Using art to push boundaries in healthcare and start discussions on death

by Natalie Zizzo

Death is inevitable. It’s a sullen thought, but it’s true. And it’s an important thought, because death is our final experience in life. Unfortunately, few people are comfortable talking about death openly. Even fewer discuss what “modern” death looks like – what does it look like to die in a hospital bed after a protracted illness? What does it look to die in an ICU after a sudden event, while healthcare workers try to save you? What does it look like to have your ventilator removed when it becomes apparent there is no hope for recovery? These are experiences that few come to know and understand, and those individuals who have first-hand experience are no longer here to explain it to us.

As detailed in our companion book review, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is one work that aims to describe the experience of a terminal illness. It is a beautiful book, with masterful writing and artful storytelling. It is a perfect example of how art can express the subtleties, nuances and raw realities of a taboo health topic.

At TABOO Health, we aim to uncover these types of health stories through art. Our most recent exhibit series focuses on the particularly difficult topic of death and dying in modern healthcare and medical settings. There are many reasons why we believe this topic in particular needs to be explored through art. Earlier this month, we discovered that many people felt the same way.

On November 6 and 7, we displayed an art piece related to this topic at HealthAchieve, a conference and trade show put on by the Ontario Hospital Association. Delegates include many thought-leaders and decision-makers in healthcare. The exhibit floor houses over 300 exhibitors, displaying everything from new software, to new medical equipment, to our art. At this trade show promoting sterilization equipment and hospital beds, we created a warm space where we invited people to face the difficult issue of death through art. The change in space and pace in the corporate environment was welcomed by delegates, as many responded positively to our booth. This solo artist show featured work from Helen Zajkowski, a mixed media artist. Her video and installation, “The Cage”, portrayed an intimate reflection on being a caregiver for a loved one who is dying.  

Passers-by stopped in their tracks, intrigued. Some were shocked by the number of pill bottles. Others thought it was a guessing game, only to discover the morbid truth. Some took a moment to share a personal story.

This experience at Health Achieve has taught us that there is a real need for the development of novel ways of discussing taboo health topics. Talking about challenging health topics does not need to be so difficult. As health promoters, we need to find innovative ways of engaging health care professionals and the public in these discussions. Art provides a unique opportunity to provoke thought and discussion in this domain.





Natalie Zizzo has a Master in Bioethics and is the Communications Lead at TABOO Health. To learn more about TABOO Health check out our website. To partner or volunteer with us, contact us. Read Natalie’s previous blog here.

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