By Jennifer Haaland
"Partners That Heal is not about performing; it's about connecting." -Brian Sweis, originating member of Phoenix Theatre's Partners That Heal
Partners That Heal. They sound like good companions to have around, people who make it better. They are.
For eight years, at crisis care facilities across Arizona, these specially trained Phoenix Theatre artists have offered healing to children and adults through improvisation, puppetry and music. Brian Sweis has been there since the first child.
"It's so easy for a kid to be overwhelmed by needles and machines and procedures and become defined by their illness. We remind them they are kids. We help them hold onto what makes them who they are through laughter and through connection," Sweis says as an introduction of the troupe.
Originally the concept of Producing Artistic Director Michael Barnard and now managed by Associate Producing Director Pasha Yamotahari, Partners That Heal is the only program of its kind in the country according to Sweis. They work largely through the Child Life Department at Phoenix Children's Hospital.
"We get sent to kids they think can benefit, often to isolation and other areas that are off-limits to visitors.” Sweis’ voice seems to tighten with regret in the pause, “There’s so many. We struggle to get to them all."
The power of their visits is inestimable. As Sweis points out, studies have shown that frame of mind plays a big role in how we recover and heal from illness.
"From the first knock on their hospital door we want the child to have the power. They so rarely get to control what happens to them in this environment. We have a huge bag of tricks we can pool from for them to direct the action," Sweis notes, explaining how even a patient's 'no' can become a victory.
“If they ask for a story, we place them at the center of it. And super-hero Jane or Prince Darren triumph, along a path they’ve helped us chart. We get to know their favorite color and music, what activities they like, and build a tale from those.”
Within the child a healing seed is planted. It may grow because of the silly role-playing or fun that ensues.
"Some of our most memorable visits have been with kids unable to speak," Sweis relays. "They may be able to smile because of us and it's the first step in communicating, sometimes with the medical team who has gotten no response whatsoever."
Whereas participating facilities report improved communication between patients and caregivers directly following a visit, the improvements encourage hope and connections of other varieties, too.
"We are basically a bunch of grown-up children. Even doctors will take on a character and become a free spirit when they get the chance. We draw on what connects us to kids… the lighthearted and goofy," Sweis says about the Partners That Heal team of six that ranges in age from their 20s to their 60s.
Sometimes, even when worn out broken bodies can't heal, the souls inside them and their loved ones can begin to mend. A song or story from a Partners That Heal team member has been the last wish of a dying child on more than one occasion.
"I can't imagine what it takes for a parent to remain strong, to refrain from projecting their fears and worries onto their children in order to help them be brave," Sweis shares.
The bravery runs deep. Sweis talks about how their members need to be fearless. They learn heartbreaking backstories, know fatal prognoses and perform when tubes are everywhere and machines are whirring.
"If my job is to get them to forget, then it's my job to forget, too..... to block out the parent crying in the corner. We may walk out of the room and fall apart, but in the moment – in the room – we need to remain strong and brave."
A name like Partners That Heal expresses that these individuals offer some remarkable rejuvenation tools to people in critical need. But the name goes deeper, as does the healing.
"Sometimes there's a surprising impact, maybe on a sibling rather than the patient," says Sweis trying to quantify the extraordinary power he has witnessed.
Through Partners That Heal, Sweis has learned to more meaningfully touch the uninhibited heart within a child. With it, more hope and strength than he anticipated have enlivened his own child within.
“I don’t know what I would do without Partners That Heal,” he says quietly. “They have changed my life and made me a better person.”