Building Creative Connections Between Medicine and Art

Posted in GUMC Stories

AUGUST 17, 2015—What would you do with a month of free time, staying in a studio with a view of the Pacific Ocean, situated on 600 acres near Palo Alto, Calif.? You don’t have to cook — a chef is on hand to prepare a scrumptious feast every day for you and 12 other people populating other studios. You don’t have to do anything but think…reflect…create.

At first, Caroline Wellbery, MD, PhD (new window), professor in Georgetown’s department of family medicine, wasn’t sure how best to use this gift of time she received as an artist-in-residence with Science Delirium Madness, an initiative by the Djerassi Resident Artists Program for artists and scientists interested in the intersection of their respective fields.

The Djerassi Resident Artists Program was created in 1979 by the late Carl Djerassi who, in addition to his work as an author and playwright, earned fame as the Stanford chemistry professor who synthesized the first oral contraceptive pill. After buying his land in Woodside with the proceeds from the sale of the pill, Djerassi developed the resident artists program to honor his daughter, a poet and painter who died in 1978. Djerassi himself passed away in January but since the start of the program, artists have populated the land from April through November each year; last year, scientists started coming as well.

A homecoming, of sorts…

Wellbery was the perfect candidate for Scientific Delirium Madness. She uses narrative texts and visual arts to teach medical students how to recognize and understand many aspects of patients’ experiences — pain, depression, domestic violence, grief and aging. By honing their observational skills, she says, physicians can improve patient interactions and diagnostic proficiency. “So much of illness is not witnessed,” Wellbery  says. She is known for her views and has published widely, including an article published in July in Academic Medicine (new window)

In short, Wellbery introduces medical students to the human side of medicine. She considers herself half physician scientist, half narrative artist and visual interpreter.

Staying for a month in Woodside could also be a homecoming, of sorts. Wellbery is a graduate of the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and Stanford University, where she earned a PhD in comparative literature. And she yearned for time to reboot on the California coast.

Releasing pent-up creativity

Shortly after moving into her studio, Wellbery exhaled. “I had several ideas about what I would do before I got there, and all of a sudden, in that space, they all came flooding out,” she says.

During the month of July, Wellbery lived up to the name of the program — she worked with a kind of delirious energy. She wrote a 170-page memoir titled “Writing the Diagnosis.” She completely revamped her art and science website (new window) and wrote a commentary on the relationship between art and science and its meaning for medicine, which she submitted to The New England Journal of Medicine.

“I didn’t know I had all this pent up creativity. I was so exhilarated. The experience was incredible,” she says.

Though Wellbery was the only doctor in the group, there was also a physicist, a chemist and a primatologist. Over time, she started to collaborate with the artists in the program and the chats around the common dinner table became productive opportunities for brainstorming.

Rethinking the hospital gown

For example, she worked with Eathan Janney, a musician and performer from Brooklyn who is also a PhD candidate in neuroscience. Janney was comparing bird songs to jazz rhythms. Wellbery shared a collection of sounds she had assembled,  with the help of a medical student, that depicted the typical medical environment surrounding patients. “There were hospital sounds — beepers, alarms — ambulances, toxic ambient noise,” Wellbery says.

Janney strung the sounds together, interviewed Wellbery, and then superimposed the narrative over what Wellbery calls the medical soundscape (new window). “We don’t pay any attention to these noxious sounds, but they actually impact the well-being of the patient and the health care team,” she says. Wellbery intends to use the soundscape as a teaching tool.

She also worked with Christine Lee from San Diego, who explores the use of mundane, surplus and other disregarded materials as design and sculptural resources.  

“Christine was very interested in healing environments and I was interested in how the hospital gown affects a patient’s well-being,” she says. “She was fascinated by the prospect of designing a new patient gown out of sustainable materials that is beautiful and pleasant to wear.”

Infusing medicine with creativity

Wellbery brought two lessons back from her month-long sojourn into creativity. “One is the true gift of time. I think that is a sort of a sine qua non of well-being in general because we are all overworked and way over-committed,” she says.

The other is that “artists and scientists should interact more. We are too robotic in our approach to medicine,” Wellbery says. “The use of smart phones, computers and diagnostic devices in medicine produces physicians who become machines. We have become very specialized and trade oriented, with a one-track mentality.

“But I think it is very important to be aware of the complexity of life — everything is interrelated. And we haven’t addressed that properly in our specializations. We need to broaden our perspective.

“I believe art can infuse the practice of medicine with creativity and I think medicine really needs that,” Wellbery says. “We need to take breathers and just observe life.”

Renee Twombly
GUMC Communications