“Pablo Picasso said, ‘Art brushes away from our soul, the dust of everyday life.’” – Dr. Inge Guen
Meet Dr. Inge Guen, a clinical psychologist and leader of the Creative Arts Program of the American Red Cross Services to the Armed Forces (SAF) unit at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. For the past 14 years, Dr. Guen has poured her heart and soul into her work to support wounded warriors recovering from their injuries.
She views her role as simple — to heal the soul, and she does so through art therapy.
Art therapy is one of the many programs the Red Cross offers to provide vital comfort, recovery and health care to service members, veterans and their families. Around the world, the Red Cross works with military and VA hospitals and clinics to provide a variety of services including rehabilitation therapy, morale-building activities and resiliency programs.
In these art therapy classes, Dr. Guen provides injured service members a blank canvas, where they are told to paint something. She finds that many of them are hesitant at first in knowing how to express themselves through art.“So many of our patients say, ‘I’m not an artist, I don’t know what to do. I could make everything wrong.’ I say, ‘no.’ Look at Pablo Picasso, he distorts the face totally and it is still perfect,” she said.
“After one hour, you have no idea the beauty they can create. Their self-esteem rises, and the interaction among the patients becomes intimate and personal. They are laughing with one another and after one hour, we’ve brought sunshine into their heart.”
Dr. Guen first joined the Red Cross at the request of her son, K. Peter Guen, who served as a Red Cross volunteer, providing pastoral services at Walter Reed. “He said to me, ‘Mommy, please come, and look at these incredible soldiers. They need your help. They need your love. They need your support,’” Dr. Guen recalled.
In 2018, Peter fell ill and unexpectedly died of cancer. Dr. Guen says that she’s privileged to walk on what she calls the sacred ground of Walter Reed and help injured services members in the name of her son. “I guess you could say that this is a family business. I continue this work in honor of my son’s legacy,” she said.
Today, a picture of Peter hangs on the wall in the Traumatic Brain Injury unit at Walter Reed. Dr. Guen says that after his death, she learned so many wonderful stories from patients and staff about his kindness. She said that each day she wakes up inspired by Peter’s legacy and the strength of the wounded warriors she’s serving.
“I’m surrounded by single, double and triple amputees. I’m surrounded by blind soldiers. I’m surrounded by soldiers who only have part of their brain left, who are struggling. The amazing thing is that they do not complain,” Dr. Guen said.
She said that her patients carry their wounds like a badge of honor. “This touches me so much that I have to stay and be a part of this program,” she said. With her work, she hopes to bring a bit of sunshine to these warriors.
“I want to bring that light into their hearts,” she said. “Our patients are fighting a war, not against the foreign enemies, but against the challenges they have to meet physically and mentally. Even though our patients are warriors and soldiers, they are also sensitive people. They have seen devastation. The pain is still there. The Red Cross comes in and embraces them and their pain. They come in and do everything to make these patients feel happy and relaxed,” she added.
This year, Dr. Guen was awarded the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her service to the Red Cross. She hopes that she can give other people encouragement to serve with the organization. “You can be 20 or 75, age has nothing to do with your ability to give back,” she concluded.
This story is part of an American Red Cross Force for Good blog series, featuring dedicated Red Cross workers whose exceptional contributions to our humanitarian mission enable us to help and support people in communities across the country.