As a visual artist, art historian, and premedical student, I sought a course of study that would combine the visual arts with the aesthetic and psychosocial aspects of medical practice. In the summer of 2016, I received approval to directly observe physicians and patients at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford and to record and interpret my clinical experience in a year of studio work. I was drawn to hand surgery because of the highly detailed finger craft required of surgeons and painters alike, the reflective record of that craft represented in painted images of hands performing and receiving surgery, and the symbolic role of hands in caring for others. The result was Hands Healing Hands, an oil painting series I completed in spring 2017 based on the photos I took of several pediatric plastic and reconstructive hand surgery cases I compiled into a chronological narrative of perioperative care, including Closure, on the cover of this issue.
Closure symbolizes the final stage of any operation. In this painting, the surgeons carefully close the wound after removing the supernumerary digit of a child with left thumb polydactyly. Even in this static image, there is a sense of coordination and teamwork. The figures are anonymous, as if to convey that their gloved hands move methodically, yet automatically, through the final step of reconstruction. The focus is therefore on the gestures and interactions of the hands themselves. The syndrome simply provides the context for these interactions.
In this painting, I brought attention to the child’s hand by using saturated hues of red, orange, and yellow under focused lighting. Under the high contrast and glaring exposure of the surgical lights reflecting off white gloves, many subtleties, such as folds and reflections, were lost behind the camera lens. However, I enhanced these details through still life studies and my artistic liberty with the color palette. I chose to paint this image because the pyramidal composition allows the viewer’s eyes to follow the outline of an imaginary triangle, bringing together the hands of both surgeons in one dynamic flow of movement—into one integrated means of “hands healing hands.”
In this oil painting series, I attempt to take my audience through the narrative process of an operation—from the initial anesthesia, through the conduct of the operation to the postoperative resolution. My examination of surgery through an artistic lens demonstrates the observational skills involved in a highly technical practice. After all, the field requires reflection, compassion, and insight into the human condition in addition to a discerning eye.
Hands Healing Hands, and Closure in particular, taught me how artists and doctors study the human body in similar ways. Medicine, like art, is about simultaneously zooming in on details and stepping back to see the big picture.
The author thanks Dr. Samuel Rodriguez for his support and writing assistance.
Meagan Wu, MA