Keeping it Real
This is my second year painting an image that represents the wonder that is Medicine X at Stanford. The painting this year is called “Such as These.” The title is a literary reference to the New Testament passage where Jesus chides the disciples for turning away messy and exuberant children. I thought that a powerful concept as we reflect on an event that invites all of us to the table.
I focused on children this year. In the world of art, when children are depicted at all, they are often depicted as adults in miniature. But children are far more than that. They are flexible in limb and mind. One moment a child’s face can break with sorrow as tears freely fall and in the next moment a peal of laughter will fill the room. Children show such a range of emotion even though within our culture they are usually depicted as happy smiling creatures.
Often in fine art, children are accessories within a composition. They provide a still structural support within a scene and are not the focus of the piece. Here I paint them in all their glory of action and importance, even if their world is considered small compared to our own.
So we enter the world of metaphor and the patient becomes the child. For within the world of a medical conference patients are often relegated to this role. We are overly emotional, messy, uninformed, and ignorant; we tend to interrupt our elders. Very often we have special tracks and patient speaker panels that are attended by other patients but very few professionals join us at the children’s table.
But if we patients stray within the realm of the professional and like any observant child pick up the turn of phrase and jargon of the world of medicine, if we talk as they do, why then, we are considered “professionalized” and no longer in touch with the common man. What a dilemma for the epatient or patient advocate to face.
Not long ago my friend ePatient Dave, or Dave deBronkart as he was once known, shared with me the negative comments a member of industry used when describing my speaking style. The gentleman said I was not real because I cried at the same time in two speeches. Well, try as I might I cannot change the past. It sad every time and most times I cry. But like a child, I can leave the tears behind and within moments focus on a brighter future. Yet this process is painful; each night after the speech my eyes hurt and my soul mourns.
I decided to reach out the gentleman who misunderstood me so. It turns out seeing patients enter the world of medicine and lose their authenticity had frustrated him. I explained each person is different, but having lived through a childhood abuse allows me to go from experiencing obvious sorrow to being able to talk about the intricacies of health policy within moments. I told him that being beaten and then having to answer the door with a smiling public face is lesson you do not easily forget. I also said there are patients who cannot return so easily from darkness, but you do not see them speak anymore because this job became too much for such as these.
He continued to share his concerns that patients weren’t keeping it real and growing too distant from the source of their passion. I acknowledged his view but stated we each have different ways to stay in touch with day-to-day concerns of regular people. I still work in a toy store and talk of child development and patients rights in the game section. I still do painting with children and introduce them to the concept of participatory art. Not to mention with each Walking Gallery jacket I paint, I dive deep within the playground of another patient’s mind.
The gentleman apologized for thinking ill of me we he really did not know me. I look forward to having a chance to walk with him again in the future. Apologies are rare within this world and should be cherished, as should be the willingness to talk about hurt feelings.
Which brings us back to children and this special painting. Here within the scene a child pours tea for another. The serving child is concentrating on the task and the recipient of the tea looks at the viewer. He or she is an androgynous beauty who looks upon us but also slightly beyond, perhaps focusing on a field of questions that must one day must be answered. To their left a young girl proudly hefts a flag before her that billows in the breeze. The flag is Stanford red and emblazoned with XOXO, hugs and kisses from this conference to those who will join us at the table.
In the center of the composition an African American boy stares into the distance while another child checks his ear with a toy otoscope. The boy’s face holds a fleet of emotions from frustration to concern. His clothing is the same color as the sky and other than his questioning visage he could easily disappear into the background even though he is placed center in this composition. Sometimes we do not see that which is right before our eyes. Below the table a child looks up with a happy smile and offers a flower to her friend as the puppy Zoe completes the tableau.
To the right a red haired child stands tiptoe carefully constructing a familiar tower and the word medicine. He only has eyes for the world he is building and his countenance is one of peaceful work. To his right a girl in her skinny jeans holds her teacup as she looks with serious concentration at her smart phone. Which based on her expression, I do not believe is a toy.
That is the Medicine X painting for 2013. That is the energy and communication of the children’s table. This is a place where tears and laughter meet. This is a place where feelings may be hurt but we talk about it and say we are sorry. Welcome to our table.