Teaching doctors compassion through art
When Daphne Hill starts worrying herself sick about germs and disease, she copes in the way she knows best — transforming her anxieties into art.
"Hazel, Mateo, Herpes," a mixed-media collage by Daphne Hill.
The San Diego artist introduced an exhibit of her latest series of artworks, “Venereal Narratives and Other Cautionary Tales,” to second-year medical students taking a lunchtime break from classes at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Hill's fanciful mixed-media collages portray couples in romantic settings superimposed with images of the microorganisms that cause Chlamydia, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases. The exhibit is presented as a new component of the medical school’s Doctoring Program, a four-year curriculum that trains students how to be compassionate caregivers.
A self-admitted hypochondriac who has also created artworks about Down syndrome, toxic mold and salmonella bacteria, Hill said her recent series resulted from a talk she had with her young son about the perils of unprotected sex.
Hill (right) describes her work on toxic mold to medical student Lauren Wolchok.
“I made it as scary-sounding as I could,” she recalled, adding that the experience led her to seek a way to release her own fears about sexually transmitted diseases. “My art is a way to exorcise anxieties about my own personal health and the health of people I care about,” she said. “I can take something threatening and put it over there on the wall.”
Her exhibit is intended as educational, she said, "but it’s also meant to be fun — as fun as venereal disease can be. I want to take something that a lot of people don’t want to talk about and put a human face on it.”
Medical student Lauren Wolchok said, “We’re learning about infectious disease right now, so this exhibit is really humanizing.” She added that “the whole initiative of having art as part of education is a really brilliant addition to the emphasis UCLA’s Doctoring Program puts on teaching caregivers to see patients as people.”
Artist-in-residence Ted Meyer curates the exhibits and teaches classes in the medical school's Doctoring Program.
The initiative was developed by artist Ted Meyer and LuAnn Wilkerson, senior associate dean for education. Meyer, the program’s artist-in-residence, is curating a two-year series of rotating exhibits in the school’s Learning Resource Center.
“The Doctoring Program is already about learning how patients experience illness,” Wilkerson said. “Doing this requires really being able to see life from a different perspective.” Adding art to the curriculum “offers another lens through which medical students can view the experiences of a patient. The perspective artists bring is often a little surprising.”
Joy Mincey Powell and the spinal scar she carries from an accident in which she broke her back. From Ted Meyer's "Scarred for Life" series.
Meyer’s merging of art with medicine began when, at the age of 5, he was diagnosed with Gaucher's disease, a rare genetic disorder that thins the bones, causing constant pain and fatigue. He spent most of his childhood in a New York teaching hospital, where a sympathetic "art lady" rolled her cart to his bed and encouraged him to create collages from bandages and IV tubes. “I became really comfortable using my health for art imagery,” he recalled. Now healthy after years of joint replacements, operations and infusions, he devotes himself to sensitizing future doctors to the patient’s point of view.
Launching the exhibit series last spring was Meyer’s “Scarred for Life,” a series that came about as the result of a chance meeting a dozen years ago at an art show of his work.
“It was a very Los Angeles kind of affair,” he recalled. “I was in conversation with celeb guest Henry Winkler and Candice Bergen when SHE rolled into the gallery — a beautiful woman whose grace only seemed enhanced by her wheelchair. She wore a stunning black dress with a low back. I couldn't help but notice the long scar that graced her back.”
He learned that the woman, Joy Mincey Powell, once a dancer with a noted dance company who also acted in roles on stage and television, had broken her back after falling from a tree while a counselor at a summer camp many years before. Meyer went on to photograph Powell for what became a series of artwork that powerfully portrays real people and their life-changing scars. The series, which has appeared in galleries around the country, has an important message for doctors, he said.
“My work is telling them, ‘You’re working with this patient for just a few hours, but that person is going to think about this, deal with its long-term ramifications, for years.
"It's important for medical students to know that their patients will remember them for the rest of their lives," Meyer said. "I think about the surgeon who did my hip replacement each time I bend over to tie my shoes.”
Hill's work continues on view in the lobby of the UCLA Learning Resource Center, 700 Westwood Blvd. on the southeast corner of Charles E. Young Drive. Plans are under way for a third exhibit, showcasing art created by adults in San Diego who are living with autism, Down syndrome, epilepsy and cerebral palsy.