A mother and her 12-year-old son stand with their backs to me in the corridor just outside my office, studying the framed print that hangs on the wall. The mother cradles her 4-month-old infant in her arms. It is miraculous that the child is sleeping now, given that he was wailing his head off not 10 minutes ago when I examined him for a likely middle-ear infection.
“I think that's what my teacher calls abstract art,” the boy explains to his mother.
The print depicts the face of a female figure, her body ill-defined, centered in the midst of a shower of rainbow colors. If viewers look closely, they can make out a pair of hands reaching out and thin transparent wings emanating from the figure's shoulders. Indeed, the title of the original painting is “Earth Angel.”
As is the case with most works of art, there is a story behind this one. It was composed by a woman who nearly died four times over the course of her long life. As I write these words she still enjoys a vibrant existence. Here, in her words, is the story of how the angel painting came about.
“In 1996, I developed a mega bowel abscess. Initially, I thought it was just a flare-up of diverticulitis, so I didn't seek help for over a week. When I finally went to the doctor, he immediately sent me to the hospital. After I failed to improve with a 2-week course of antibiotics, they decided to insert a drain into my abdomen. When the doctors discovered that an abscess was hidden deep in my pelvis, they decided to operate.
“My sister, who is a nurse, walked into the room just as the surgeon yelled ‘She's got an abscess as big as my fist—get my associate quick!’ He later told me that I was a walking time bomb and could have died instantly had they not operated.
“Two months later, they reversed the colostomy, but I subsequently developed adhesions. My bowels twisted; and I almost died again because they didn't diagnose the problem. After 2 and a half weeks in the hospital, when I still didn't have normal bowel sounds, I underwent another 5-hour surgery: they removed 2 feet of my small bowel, gave me 2 pints of blood and saved my life a second time.
“That's not the end of the story. Back in my room, as I lay in my bed, the intravenous line dispensing pain medicine kinked. For hours I was in so much pain that I prayed to die. They had forgotten to plug in the bedside call bell, and the night nurse never came to check on me. Although I could hear her footsteps in the hall and begged for help, she never responded. When the day shift nurse came in at 6 o'clock the following morning, I told her I wanted to die, my pain was so severe; I told her that no one had come to my aid. Finally, about noon, they pieced together what had happened. After these events I began to see the angel images that I now paint.”
Over the span of my 35 years in medical practice, I have found the art of medicine to be an integral part of the healing process. Caring, compassion, and empathy help the patient to heal, to reintegrate a sense of wholeness into their being, even if the prognosis is grim.
Sometimes in this process, the patient becomes an artist herself. Through artistic expression, be it poetry, a short narrative, a piece of music, a sculpture, a film clip, a sketch or a formal painting, the medicine of art bolsters the patient's well-being. Such works might in turn touch the psyche and soul of the sensitive clinician-beholder as well.
I lean back in my chair and stare out at the painting I have come to know so well. The artist, you see, was once my teacher; and long ago I was her student, caught up in a heady world of youthful artistic expression.
Over the course of my medical career, that artistic world has held me in good stead.