“Patient-centered care wasn’t widely accepted,” Okun said. “Hospital staff and patients were afraid of allowing artists and musicians to comfort sick patients for cultural and for health reasons.”
Eventually, Kaleidoscope and Brains behind Arts and Medicines merged and became UF Student Arts in Medicine.
Okun and Graham-Pole were change agents in the medical field. They saw the importance of human interaction with many forms of art having the potential to be used as healing and as therapy.
Now in 2021, fortunes have changed for the UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine program, or AIM, which has hospital funding and, more importantly, has been fully embraced by faculty, staff, families and patients.
Today, as a neurologist and clinical-researcher who works with patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Tourette syndrome and other neurological disorders, Okun sees firsthand the importance of programs like AIM.
“Human interactions have a profound effect on brain, behavior and immune system functions,” Okun said. “These artistic interactions help people.”
Okun openly discusses with his patients that one in five or six of them will develop demoralization from their disease. Demoralization can happen even in the absence of depression, and research supports the notion that human interaction can combat demoralization.
In addition to Okun’s other achievements, he is a poet who has written Lessons from the Bedside (1995) as well as 14 other books, including most recently co-authoring, Ending Parkinson’s Disease: A Prescription for Action (2020, Hachette). Many of the poems in his first book are drawn from the patients and caregivers he met during the Kaleidoscope program years.
What drives Okun isn’t the same thing that drives a lot of people. Humanity and compassion are a core part of who he is.
“My singular philosophy is that the patient is the sun, and the health care team should orbit around the patient’s needs,” Okun said. “Anyone who knows me is aware that I say this over and over again, as I believe that this core philosophy can change lives.”