Waiting—for a long-sought appointment, a key lab result, a life-changing diagnosis—is a frequent experience for patients. In becoming a physician, I’ve witnessed how such waiting is often fraught with confusion, fear, or hope, and how the end to waiting can bring relief, despair, or joy.
In my clinical years, I observed patients awaiting diagnosis, surgery, chemo, or discharge—their furrowed foreheads and clenched hands imprinted on my mind. The 45-year-old man, aged by his long battle with diabetes, nervously awaiting the amputation of his leg later that afternoon, trying to fathom what it will feel like to live with his future prosthetic. The young pregnant woman, anticipating the news of her fetal genetic testing, wondering whether her baby will have a healthy normal life. The parents trying to hide their anxiety from their toddler in the oncology clinic as they wait to hear if she has relapsed.
Such patients often triggered memories of my own waiting and worrying as a cancer patient during the last six years. A sudden diagnosis of cancer one year before I began medical school and then a recurrence one year before I graduated caused me to pause and truly become a patient myself. I felt the anxiety and discomfort of being on the other side of the stethoscope, the CT scanner, and the scalpel. As physicians and patients, we experience intimately the pivotal moments of life—the joy of a birth, the adjustment to a new diagnosis, the realization of an imminent death. It is how we cope with such moments that reveals our humanity.
Art has become a natural outlet for me to cope with these experiences and explore issues around illness, disability, and death. During medical school, I sketched the complex structures of the body in anatomy lab, etching their intricate relationships in my notebook. I sat at the bedside of a young man diagnosed with a brain tumor, sketching the convoluted cortex with the leafy cerebellum below and his tumor invading in between. I spent the days of my own surgical recovery drawing. As both a physician-in-training and a patient, I have found art a necessary and therapeutic tool to help me face mortality, become a more compassionate witness, and foster healing. As my practice continues, I hope to help our profession nurture its capacity for empathy through the arts—to remember that beauty and grace can exist in the waiting moments.