The world of art and the world of medicine are inseparable to me. Painting has let me explore the unanswerable questions encountered in medicine. These questions on the human condition, suffering, healing, hope, life, death, and our responsibility to each other have been raw material for my artwork. On my journey in becoming a doctor, I have come face to face with what it means to be human at the deepest level from my first days in the anatomy lab through my encounters with patients as a physician. Painting has awakened my senses to a new, valuable dimension to doctoring.
I believe that the humanities have an important role in medical education and I believe that providing health care requires more than an understanding of the science of disease. Painting has allowed me to stop and look at my patients, for they have been some of my most important educators. Painting has also been a way for me to cope with the intensity of some of my experiences in the hospital and has been a means to self-healing. Finally, painting has helped me reflect and connect with my reasons for answering the call of medicine. I am reminded of the tradition of service that pulled me here years ago and that it was my heart—not my intellect—that kept me going.
I continue on this journey with renewed zeal as a tribute to my grandfather, Dr. Akhtar Mahmood, who encouraged me to nurture both parts of my identity, artist and doctor. The most compassionate physician and man I have ever known, he tirelessly cared for patients for over 65 years and continued to do so through the very last hours of his life. He passed away in March 2008 and he will always be a source of inspiration for me.
Molten Humility was painted in my final year of residency at Loyola University Children’s Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. It was inspired by a poem written by my friend and coresident, Steve Handoyo, MD, which appears below.
You bowled me over with a withering wall of weakness. As images seared into me, The wracked weeping mother; The father, arms a cradle about her head, holding his hand, That feathery pulsing pump and Eyes too new to open. I was hurled to my knees, My back bent to breaking My arms clasped around my knees for support Though I suppose I just stood there limply.
Confidence cascaded off me in rivulets Molten humility and impotence seeped, overrunning every inch. Monosyllabic thought the remnants of my mind.
It is my vocation to try: A hand on the shoulder, An ear grasping the touch of their breaths And your aching love, A halting heartfelt stammer upon your strength, your wisdom, your love.
End in an embrace with a friend, And a clasping of her hand This brilliant force I have just met Who has brought these boys into light And enveloped them in a lifetime Of maternal ardent comfort In the span of a thousand beats In the space of her arms.
As her eyes finally rose to mine, I knew that my flailings, My ramblings and ministrations Had provided not the least salve Of tranquility or palliation.
I have seen those eyes before Though still they defy belief: Selflessly, wordlessly consoling thy physician. Somehow the most devastated of us Can create compassion and tranquility And offer it to these doctors Who have become so powerless.
I doubt you will ever comprehend That you free us from our paralysis. We overcome our own frailties, Our frustrations, and our lapses, Desperate that our work may return a drop of your torrential love. - —Steve Handoyo, MD
Saira Malik Rahman, MD