AK: The Art Of Medicine

(Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN - Anchorage)
(Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage)

Physicians spend a lot of time thinking about how to fix the human body. A group of young doctors in Anchorage recently had the chance to draw it instead. They are all overworked, over tired interns- halfway through their first year of residency. They spent a morning in an intro to drawing class in an effort to get them to think more creatively about their careers.

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At first, Doctor David Silbergeld wasn’t sure what to make of the drawing class that popped up on his schedule.

“I think my first thought was, ‘uh oh,'” he said.

Silbergeld’s dad teaches art history, so he’s had lots of exposure to art. But the last time he remembers producing any of it was a long, long time ago.

“When I was 4 or 5 years old I used to do art my dad said was amazing, and I have not done anything since then,” he said.

Silbergeld is in his first year of the Alaska Family Practice Residency in Anchorage. Since July, he has been whizzing through a series of challenging rotations, working 80 hours a week and getting very little sleep. But for a month in the depth of the winter, all of the residency’s interns have a break of sorts called ‘trans-cultural medicine.’ It’s like an extracurricular holiday- a feast of lessons in things like cultural diversity, wilderness survival and nutrition.

And for three hours one recent morning – drawing.

University of Alaska Anchorage art professor Garry Mealor is teaching the class in figure drawing. He explains the students will have 90 seconds to draw each pose the model takes. He offers a few quick pointers – like how to get the proportions right (a human figure is about eight heads tall).

Then the model takes off her robe and more than a dozen doctors start to draw. Silbergeld is clearly enjoying himself, but it isn’t easy. He develops a coping strategy early on.

“I simply can’t recreate the human head or the human face in any beautiful or realistic way, so I’ve sort of given up on that and I’ve focused more on the torso or to some extent the legs, and I’m more pleased now that I’m doing that,” Silbergeld said.

(Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN - Anchorage)
(Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage)

This is the fourth group of interns to take the drawing class. Dr. Susan Beesley, an Anchorage pediatrician, came up with the idea. Beesley thinks medicine is both a science and an art. She helped start an arts program at her medical school in Colorado. And she wanted to offer a small piece of that experience to the Alaska residents. Beesley likes that it pushes them out of their comfort zone.

“I think it’s important to think creatively when your subjects are humans,” Beesley said. “Humans don’t really follow textbooks all the time and I think if you can integrate a little bit of creative thought into your healing practice that it will benefit both the doctors and the patients.”

Beesley also hopes the class offers the doctors a different perspective after six months of looking at disease and illness in the human body.

“Now we’re asking them to just look at it as a piece of art and think about it as just beautiful and miraculous and something that they can enjoy,” Beesley said.

The morning’s last challenge is to use different erasers to create an image of the model on paper blackened with charcoal, which Mealor assures is “going to be messy, but fun.”

(Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN - Anchorage)
(Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage)

Silbergeld spends the rest of class immersed in his final piece of artwork.

“It took an hour to get me okay with it but I’m okay with it.”

Silbergeld isn’t exactly sure how this class may affect his decisions as a doctor three months, or even three years, from now. But he appreciates the chance to spend a morning thinking a little differently than his typical doctor routine allows.

“I think classes like this are a good reminder that sometimes when you do that physical exam you do need to step back and get that broader image of the human body when you’re seeing patients,” he said.

As he packs up, Silbergeld decides to take several of his drawings home. He says he’s not exactly ready to frame them, but he doesn’t want to give them up either.