Not being a clinician, I was afforded a lot of latitude at the cancer center in Bennington. Sometimes, the staff didn’t know what to do with this medical humanist among them. On one occasion, I suggested we present an exhibit of abstract art. It was not the kind of conventional works that usually adorned the walls of a medical office so it would take some convincing to gain approval from the medical director and hospital’s administration. Frankly, it wasn’t lost on me that designating a percentage of sales to the cancer center’s patient’s financial assistance program might sway their thinking. Although somewhat apprehensive there was no objections. So, down came the barns and Vermont snow scenes and up went canvases with images not readily recognizable.
I recall one of the oncologists asking, “Why abstract art?”
“Because no one knows what it is. I wonder if you can make the unknown more comfortable,” I said. I received a shrug of the shoulders.
Not long after the paintings were hung the oncologist stopped me at the nurse’s station to say that a patient didn’t like the art. He asked, “What do I say.”
“Ask them why?”
A few minutes later he reappeared with an update. He reported, “They don’t understand it.”
“Tell them it’s sort of like cancer…you don’t like it and you don’t understand it,” I said. “It may open a conversation about how they feel about their illness and questions they may have.”
He smiled and returned to the room where the patient was receiving a chemo infusion. Later, I learned that they shared a laugh about both not liking cancer and the painting.
On another day after all the patients were gone, I noticed a nurse sitting in a treatment chair staring at one of the paintings. I stopped to ask what she was doing.
Seeming bewildered, the nurse said, “I’m sitting here looking at this painting trying to see what the patient saw. She said something about seeing a wolf and flowers. I was very busy and didn’t pay close attention. I’m not sure I saw it earlier, but I see it now. I’ll tell her at the next visit.”
I confessed to the nurse that my intention with the exhibit was to elicit responses from patients that might cause doctors and nurses to stop clinical tasks and talk about the art. At the very least, a critique of a painting might open a dialogue that could provide a distraction, which was not a bad thing during a long treatment day. In a sense, abstract art served a similar function as my medical humanist’s notes. The paintings, like the notes, opened pathways to communication, which I hoped could lead to a deeper understanding of the patient’s perspective. At the time, but even more so in hindsight, I understood how humanizing the patient’s experience of living with illness could benefit both patients and healthcare providers during their shared journey.
Incidentally, the person I had to curate the exhibit at the cancer center in Bennington was later hired by Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City to organize an art show on the theme of uncertainty. I imagine those works had people talking.