The Art of Surviving Medical Training: An Illustrated Journey

Ryan Syrek, MA


April 25, 2019

Better to Cry Than Hold It Inside

Although she had grown up with a passion for drawing, Dr Ginny Bao stopped sketching in college. Of all things, her medical school curriculum actually brought art back into her life. "At NYU, they offered this art anatomy class that was taught by a professional artist. We would look at the cadavers and draw from actual human beings." Bao found the experience transformative and meditative. For a designated block of time, she wasn't just attempting to consume as much information as possible; she was being reminded of the humanity inherent in medicine. "I was able to almost set aside the expectations of being a med student and having to memorize these things and focus on the human body."

From that class forward, Bao has used illustration as a means to "humanize medicine." "A lot of times, medicine is very scientific, sterile, and clinical. With my drawings, I try to infuse another way of viewing medicine." For example, after finishing an ob-gyn clinical rotation, Bao crafted Cycles 2018, a drawing that tried to capture "all the transformations the female body goes through, whether it is the pains of menstruation, the beauty of ovulation, or the visceral nature of childbirth."

Bao self-supplements the strict, technical lessons of her education with creative ways to boost her patient empathy and understanding. In early 2019, Bao published "Caring for Dying Patients: Visual Narratives from the Intensive Care Unit." Initially confronting patient death is a unique, complex experience that challenges everyone in the medical profession. Putting the associated emotions into words is often impossible. "It is hard to capture what it really feels like caring for patients who are sick and, despite everything we do, they're just not getting better. Illustrating that captured all the complex ethical and emotional feelings I had that I really couldn't explain."

Studies have indicated that empathy is a skill like any other that can be improved by specific training. Bao believes that illustration is one of these potential training strategies. "When you're drawing something, you have to reconceptualize what it is that you're looking at and interpret it. You're almost empathizing with whatever you're drawing, whether that be an organ or a person." If empathizing with an organ seems somewhat abstract, consider Bao's work Peristalsis 2019. "I wanted to instill a sense of beauty and awe into the digestive system, an often underappreciated organ system that works constantly to ensure the homeostasis of our body."

Bao's art, particularly her work on the ICU narratives, has been well-received among her peers, who know well the pain of losing a patient. Not surprisingly, it has also had an impact on those outside the field of medicine. "My friends who are not in the medical field say that the images are sad but very meaningful and that they make them think about their own mortality and what it means to be a human being."

For this reason, Bao encourages every student and doctor, as well as those outside the field, to engage with artistic expression. "No matter what stage of life you are in, no matter what age you are, you can always pick up drawing or visual arts. It's always helpful and meaningful, both for yourself and to share with others."


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