Surely I was not the first medical student to stand at his station in the anatomy lab, overwhelmed with curiosity and trepidation about what he would find under the cloth covering the cadaver's face. Unable to accept the detachment between me and another person, artificially created by a thin piece of white fabric, I was compelled to see with whom I was working; I had to connect with the humanity, the purpose, of our practice, rather than the practice alone. Amid the deluge of information PowerPointed our way during medical school lectures, I had always felt a lack of humanity. The human body was, of course, ever-present in these lessons, as it certainly was in the anatomy lab, but I wanted to make a connection between the diagnoses I was memorizing and the people they would affect. I wanted to look into someone's face and understand who I was working on. I created this digital image to capture and unify the state of the human condition—young to old, self-inflicted to genetically dictated, chronic to acute, internal to external, psychological to mechanical. I hoped to show with this amalgam of afflictions that we as physicians—as humans—are not very far from the conditions that we encounter or treat.
The piece touches many nerves for me: the terrible beauty of truth, the cold separation allowed for by labels, the piecemeal patchwork of our medical knowledge, the desperate vulnerability of those in need. From the first time I unveiled the work to my classmates—watching as their jaws dropped in horror, as they turned away in disgust, or as they stared, transfixed—to every time I ruminate on the picture's growing meanings as my understanding of the practice of medicine progresses, the picture has never lost its ability to stop me in my tracks and force me to acknowledge the human aspect of my training. The grotesque patchwork sewn and stapled together—a digital Frankenstein's monster—demands a more human sympathy as the reverberations of stunned silence fade away. This work is meant to jar us out of our complacency by tuning into our curiosity and empathy. And though the images are harsh, screaming with strong colors and sharp edges, we are unable to look away.
The accumulation of these distinct afflicted entities into a human form lends a personality to the labels we so easily brand onto patients: “the alcoholic hepatitis” or “the suicide attempt in 8.” The strikingly sad features of the patient's expression (all too common of the subjects in our medical picture books), the hands in their anatomically oriented plea for help, and the crude attempt hold it all together by staples and strings all convey the feelings associated with facing our own unknowns. As physicians or medical students, we can easily become overwhelmed by the myopic minutia that help us cope with the people we face on a daily basis, allowing us to organize our minds and lives into a more functional algorithm, or we can step back and face the scary, saddening—but strangely beautiful—reality of the connection we are privileged to share with our fellow man or woman.
Just as I could not resist a close look at the cadaver's face in my anatomy lab, I am most drawn to the forlorn expression of the face in this image. In the face, the foreignness of the clinical images melts away, the human form solidifies, and we are left with a person. Because we are unable to turn away from a patient, our relationship to this figure develops from the distantly analytical to the intimately emotional, paralleling our everyday interpersonal experiences.
In the end, the piece reminds us that we are all afflicted, all vulnerable, and all human. I intended this piece to remind us all to look each other in the eye and connect—not to walk absently by each other on the street, not to avoid contact in the waiting room, not to distance ourselves in our professional manner—for we are all in need of help.