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Stephanie Cajigal
Senior Editor, Medscape

Rebecca E. Cooney, PhD


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7 Doctors Who Didn’t Sacrifice Their Creativity for Medicine

Stephanie Cajigal; Rebecca E. Cooney, PhD  |  July 1, 2016

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Slide 1

Beyond the White Coat

John Keats, Anton Chekhov, Thomas Campion. Doctors who achieved greatness in the humanities are nothing new, but given today's demands on physicians (those guys didn't have to deal with EMRs), finding the time to indulge the right side of the brain might seem like a thing of the past.

Medscape recently caught up with seven modern-day physicians who manage to feed their creative passions while also practicing medicine. Find out how and why they do it.

Image from Alamy

Slide 2

Ilene Wong, MD, Surgeon and Young-Adult Novel Author

"We in medicine talk a lot about the importance of preventive health, and that, in a nutshell, is why I write for kids and teens. The majority of the books that truly shaped my values were all read before I went to college. If there's anything that I've learned in the past year, it's that books are our best tools to inoculate our kids against racism, homophobia, and hatred. Now more than ever, our nation needs novels that promote empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

That's why I have always been driven to write: because instead of the immediate surgical gratification that you experience when you take out a tumor, writing is all about prolonged but possibly multiplied gratification, the idea that one story can affect thousands of people. Once I realized the story I wanted to tell, I carved out an hour or two a day to tell that story. Establishing that routine was key; even if you write only 500 words a day, if you write every day, by the end of the year you'll have a rough draft that you can work with."

Dr. Wong writes under the name of I.W. Gregorio. Her debut novel is None of the Above.

Images courtesy of Balzer + Bray and Ilene Wong, MD

Slide 3

Carol Cassella, MD, Anesthesiologist and Novelist

"I didn't get back to writing seriously until after I'd been in practice for a few years, had four young children, was getting into my middle years, and realized that the urge to write had never gone away. Whatever it was that I loved about communicating in that form was still with me and I really was not going to be able to be at much peace with myself until I moved ahead with it. So I went back to taking fiction-writing classes and kind of revived that side of myself and began my first novel.

The number-one rule is always be kind to yourself. We work really hard in medicine and a lot of us tend to be overachievers. We are a self-selected group of people who expect a lot from ourselves. If you have something that fulfills this other part of you that is completely unrelated to medicine, it's a very different thing. There is no measurement that says this is right or this is wrong; it's often a process of muddling through, a process of making a lot of mistakes before you finally get to something that really expresses what you want to do. I think it's really critical that people who want to do an artistic endeavor open themselves up to all of those mistakes, and rather than judging, sit back and allow yourself to be creative, which means allowing yourself to make mistakes. You learn a lot by making those mistakes.

The second thing is to make time for it—make it important. Put that passion above other things that demand your time and give yourself permission to make that a high priority."

Dr. Cassella is the best-selling author of Gemini, Healer, and Oxygen.

Images courtesy of Simon & Schuster and Carol Cassella

Slide 4

Scott Carle, MD, Occupational Medicine Physician and Artist

"When I was 13 years old, I had extensive orthopedic surgery that required me to be in a wheelchair for several months. I was so impressed with my doctor's care and attention, and many of the details of my treatment, that I wanted to become a medical doctor. Also during that time, I spent more time with my grandfather, who was an acclaimed wildlife artist. He began teaching me the basics of perspective and color while I was fortunately 'forced' to remain sedentary.

It wasn't until after medical school that I again picked up the paintbrush and discovered that it was an incredible release from the challenges that a doctor faces on a daily basis. Not to mention the hard work and always striving for perfection. It is extremely important for doctors to have some outlet—whether it is art, music, athletics—that doesn't hold them to the same strict standards as practicing medicine. Additionally, the social connections gained through art (or other pursuits) are incredibly fun!

I believe that I have been drawn to botanical subjects because, in some ways, they mimic the uniqueness of each of our patients. None are exactly like the others and all have hidden beauty—some requiring more energy than others."

Dr. Carle's art is featured on his website, and you can watch him paint live via webcam.

Images courtesy of Scott Carle, MD

Slide 5

C. Michael Gibson, MD, Interventional Cardiologist and Artist

"My mother once said that once you paint a cloud, you'll never look at a cloud the same way again. Believe it or not, I actually painted angiograms to make myself a better angiographer and it led to a couple of inventions. One was the TIMI (thrombolysis in myocardial infarction) frame count, counting how many frames on the movie it takes for the dye to go down the artery. The second one was that …painting [made me notice] this cloud of dye in the heart muscle, and consistent with what my mother said, painting that cloud made me start to look at that on the angiogram. That led to the invention of the TIMI myocardial profusion grade. For years, everyone just looked at flow in the artery, including myself, but I began to quantitate flow into the heart muscle where that cloud of dye was. It turns out that that offered independent predictive value of whether someone is going to live or die.

Being an artist has made me a better angiographer; it has made me a better scientist. When you think with both sides of the brain, you end up coming up with more creative solutions than if you just use one side of your brain. My family still teases me about this. When someone says, 'How do you find time to paint?' I say that the question really should be, "How do you find time to go to work?" You really have to prioritize taking care of yourself, growing, nurturing yourself. It takes a lot of energy to be a doctor, and you have to be recharging your batteries to do it."

See Dr. Gibson's art here.

Images courtesy of C. Michael Gibson, MD, and Evgeniy Monahov

Slide 6

Chip Thomas, MD, Indian Health Services Physician and Photographer

"I've been working as a primary care physician to the Navajo Nation for the past 29 years. Although the culture remains traditionally rich and vibrant, the unemployment rate here is about 50% and there are challenges within the community, such as increased rates of teen suicide and substance abuse. Just as my work in the clinic attempts to create an environment of wellness, my public art project in the community attempts to do the same.

I've always been drawn to images and have found photography to be a medium that allows me to communicate effectively both within and across cultures. My interest in documentary photography has helped sensitize me to the living conditions and quality of life of my patient population. I enjoy spending time with my patients in their homes, and to the extent that they're comfortable with me taking photos, I use these visits as an opportunity to document their lives. Photography is my true passion, and I'm thankful that my profession is able to complement and support it. I don't find spending time with people and making images to be arduous activities; I look forward to those moments. It's not anything I have to make time for—instead, it's something l live for. Life is short. Live and love from your passion."

See Dr. Thomas's photographs of the Navajo Reservation here.

Images courtesy of Chip Thomas, MD

Slide 7

Victor Wahby, MD, PhD, Internist, Founder & Maestro of the Medical Musical Group Orchestra

"A common thread between medicine and music is that both administer healing to human beings as well as societies. I was interested in music before I went to medical school; however, the study and practice of medicine enhanced my belief and experience of music as another mode of healing.

[Finding the time to practice medicine and work on my music] is always a challenge. However, in 1990 I helped launch the Medical Musical Group. This chorus and symphony orchestra drew in many colleagues and volunteers. Because of their fabulous collaboration, we were together able to perform national and even international concerts.

Obviously your medical career and service come first. If, however, you can connect with like-minded colleagues, you probably will be able to accomplish a lot through 'orchestrated' efforts (no pun intended)."

Learn more about the Medical Music Group here.

Images courtesy of Victor Wahby, MD, PhD

Slide 8

Rafael Campo, MD, Internist and Poet

"I've always been struck by the importance of hearing patients' voices and understanding their stories in the work of healing. My experience is that every visit in the clinic is really a kind of poetry: To listen empathetically, to be fully attentive to a patient's history, is very similar to being immersed in a poem. Also, diagnosis is akin to how poetry sees the world with concision and clarity; we help patients name what it is that troubles them, just as poetry helps us make sense of the world.

I find that my two vocations are so much of a piece that my poems take shape in the constant current of the narratives of my patients. I can think of many times when a metaphor a patient used to describe a symptom, or even listening to the iambs of a patient's heartbeat, informed poems I would go on to write. The bigger challenge for me is finding a balance between my teaching and other writerly obligations and my clinical duties. But, even in this sense, since poetry teaches us so much about human experience, and since it draws us together, I don't feel that I'm not practicing medicine when I'm away from the hospital.

My advice would be not to succumb to the false dichotomy we so often encounter in medical practice, that suggests that medicine is just a science, and that any other ways of knowing about illness aren't important. On the contrary, it's those times when we reach the limits of our scientific knowledge—when another round of chemotherapy isn't going to help, or the chronic pain doesn't respond to the latest procedure—that all of the resources of art and creativity are most necessary. Doctors are not simply technicians. In joining us all in our shared humanity, poetry, literature, art, sculpture, music, and dance can heal us when the cure we may strive for remains elusive."

Read Dr Campo's poetry here.

Images courtesy of Rafael Campo, MD, and Duke University Press

Slide 9

Seeking Talented Doctors

We want to hear from you: What passions do you pursue in addition to practicing medicine? Tell us here.

Follow Medscape on Twitter for more medical news and features: @Medscape

Images courtesy of Scott Carle, Victor Wahby, Chip Thomas, and Simon & Schuster

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