There have been countless references to the art and science of medicine over the years. I, for one, certainly have embraced both in my long career as a physician in internal medicine. However, I have always had a special connection to the art part.
My late mother was an artist, so I grew up with art everywhere.
This influence also percolated into my pre-med college education as my undergraduate degree was in architecture and urban planning.
Before recently starting my own business, I worked for the same organization for 25 years. I had at least a dozen or so of my mother’s paintings in my office suite, with some of the special ones in my exam rooms. The paintings moved with me every time my office would moved over the years.
Each of my two exam rooms had a “tasteful” nude painting from the mid-1980s when my mother was inspired by a series of life drawing classes she was taking. My two rooms also had more abstract paintings to balance the optics.
There were quite a few of her paintings in the immediate hallways. I enjoyed the fact that I was surrounded by art every day while taking care of patients.
Many times my patients would strike up a conversation about a particular painting. It was always fascinating to me that they – sometimes unexpectedly – would have such a deep appreciation for the artwork.
One such experience I shall never forget occurred in 2017.
One of my lovely patients in her mid-seventies lived two states away in Montana but would travel to my office in Seattle, WA, for her annual exam.
On that particular day in early March, I had entered the exam room to start her physical and noticed that she was standing up looking intently at one of the paintings, as if in an art gallery. My entrance seemed to have startled her just a little as her gaze had been so intense.
She recovered quickly; we chatted about other subjects and then moved forward with our medical discussion and physical exam.
Imagine my surprise when just days later I received a beautiful letter in the mail from her, including a photograph. It was a story about that day and about that particular painting.
She has been kind to let me share this experience publicly, including her letter verbatim.
Hi Dr. B,
This is an explanation of my experience with the painting in your exam room on March 7th. The painting elicited very strong feelings in me, and since I am committed to celebrating ‘moments,’ I thought I’d tell you about my moment with this painting.
In the 1970s, we had a cabin at Ocean Park on the Long Beach peninsula. We would go there on the weekends. My daughter, who was about eight years old, was a magical place where she could experience the ocean in all types of weather. She is 45 now and living in Montana, but she and her husband spend a week every year on the coast so they can experience being near the ocean.
One of the things I loved about the beach was the way the seabirds flocked together and flew in what seemed to be some sort of pattern – swooping round and round as though in some choreographed manner over the water. That is what I instantly saw in your painting, and it brought back happy memories of our time at the beach. I was a bit startled, in a good way, at how the painting affected me. I don’t often react to paintings in that way.
I have enclosed a copy of a photo taken of my daughter and her dad at Long Beach in about 1978. I think you can see from my daughter’s body language that she is in awe of the ocean before her. That has never subsided. And when I looked at your painting, I also saw, in my mind’s eye, my daughter and her love of the beach and felt – for a moment – the wonder of the birds in flight.
In appreciation of experiencing your painting,
Susan in Montana
I have read this letter many times over the years, bringing a beautiful tear to my eye each time.
Perhaps it is just the wondrous human connection, especially over art and nature. My mother passed away in 2009, so connecting this special memory to her is also lovely.
The title of my mother’s painting? Migration. And yes, although quite abstract, it was created in the context of experiencing the vibrant beauty of sea birds flocking along the ocean shore.
Art is everywhere all around us and in nature.
It connects us.
It is part of medicine and part of caring for people.
It is my truth.
Susan J. Baumgaertel is an internal medicine physician.
Image credit: Susan J. Baumgaertel