Illness as Art

I’ve taken care of thousands of patients in 10 years of practice. I’ve shepherded patients through colds, pneumonias, urinary tract infections, and birth. I’ve been at the bedside of patients with innumerable cancers, complications from diabetes, heart attacks, brain injuries, gunshot wounds, and toe amputations. I’ve palpated acute abdomens, fussed over toenail fungus, and been the very first person in the world to touch a new baby. God help me, I adore it. 

While I’m on a first name basis with the nuts and bolts of illness and recovery, I’m fascinated by life on the other side of the examination table.  What is it to be sick, fighting for life?  I know what it’s like to wait for hours in the emergency department; to have to beg for pain pills; to feel relief as a fever comes down; but how does somebody with a more creative sensibility process the experience? The experience of caring for sick patients is specialized; the experience of being sick is human.  

I chanced upon a link today on the superb and always fascinating New York Times photojournalism blog, Lens, about a photographer with lymphoma. His images, many of which were taken while he was undergoing chemotherapy, are shown in a short movie which he narrates. They’re lovely, stark images by a gentleman facing the end of his life:

A cancer survivor and his Kodachrome

On a similar but more literal vein, artist Cathy Aten posted a video about how multiple sclerosis has affected her art and life as her physical abilities are “edited down.”  Fascinating, heart-wrenching stuff:

Healing through multiple sclerosis

Through the link you can get to her blog, where she posts essays and images about her experience. As her physical body demands more attention and assistance, she asks “What does change actually look like?”  Her struggle to document that through her art is fascinating.

Also from Lens – photos of a young Afghan boy suffering from tetanus.  An ancient disease in a boy living in an ancient civilization, interacting with very modern US field medicine. The first four photos in the sequence are harrowing, graphic, and beautiful. My maternal, physician, (amateur) photographer eyes are educated; my heart, broken.

Pictures of the Day: Afghanistan

Those of you lucky enough to be healthy right now might be rolling your eyes. But I have seen many student patients who have been quite ill – cancer, diabetes, congenital heart defects, assaults, nasty infections, emergency surgeries – and many others who have lost family members to illness; it has a way of changing your outlook. 

If you’ve had the same experience and have created art from it-a quilt, a photo, a poem, a story-or you have found somebody else’s art which helped you through it, please share!  Email me ( or post a link in the comments.  I’d love to hear from you.

Victoria Rentel, MD