I just finished an hour long meeting with Dr. Albert Starr in his office at the Oregon Health and Science University. Dr. Starr is a world renowned cardiovascular surgeon who has significantly contributed to his field. For instance, he invented and installed the world's fist human heart valve in 1960, the Starr-Edwards Heart Valve. He has been a cardiovascular surgeon for about 60 years and is currently a professor of cardiovascular medicine and is chairman of the OHSU Knight Cardiovascular Institute of OHSU.
I was meeting with him to discuss a VSD surgery he performed 43 years ago on my customer (whom we will call Mr. W). Mr. W commissioned me to create a Numberism drawing illustrating an infant heart with a Ventricular Septal Defect, using the model heart Dr. Starr had given his family to detail his condition before the surgery. Dr. Starr performed the surgery to correct this disorder when Mr. W was just 15 months old. At the time only a handful on infants this young had received the treatment as it was highly risky. The purpose of our meeting was to interview him about the surgery, the disorder and the recovery, hoping to find data that would be useful to tell this story scientifically. My plan was to illustrate the heart with data relating to how Mr. W's heart was functioning before and after the treatment, to compare these two worlds. This is significant because of just how lucky Mr. W was that he could receive the treatment at all. Just 10 years prior, it would have been impossible to perform VSD surgery on such a young infant, and with how serious his condition was, he likely would not have survived had he not been treated immediately. (This is probably a good time for me to mention that Mr. W is perfectly healthy today, thanks in great deal to Dr. Starr).
A Ventricular Septal Defect is a congenital birth defect where the wall separating the Right and Left Ventricle does not fully close. In simple cases, this is a small hole that will close on its own and often simply requires medication until the infant recovers. In Mr. W's case the hole was quite large and required surgery. With a large hole in the Ventricular Septum, oxygenated blood flows from the Left Ventricle across the wall into the Right Ventricle which is filled with deoxygenated blood. The deoxygenated and oxygenated blood mix and flow through pulmonary artery to the lungs. With the excess blood from the LV, the lungs and heart work overtime leading to pulmonary hypertension. Symptoms include the infant's inability to gain weight or grow, lethargy and can lead to heart failure.
I was nervous about meeting with Dr. Starr. I am an artist who is self taught in science. I scratch the surface of the scientific world and of academia and take away the inspiration I need to create my work. I experience science through a window of love, admiration and awe. Technical patterns, mathematical values, sequences and temporal differentials within systems mesmerize me. It's like finding little secrets to the Universe, while still not knowing exactly what the secret is. I'm just finding the crumbs and hoping it leads somewhere, fitting the pieces together to tell the story as best I can.
This is not how people like Dr. Starr experience scientific education. Their path is rigorous, highly logical, highly refined, and it takes a lifetime of devotion, education and experience to get to where people like Dr. Starr are. So I was concerned he might find my interest and my developing knowledge of anatomy annoying. I have as of yet never actually experienced this reaction when speaking to any person in a scientific field I have been inspired by, but I've always been prepared for it. I've readied myself for experts in the field to argue that there is no merit to a personal education outside of academia or in the field. I have been prepared to get shut down. That still has never happened. I am always greeted with curiosity, an open mind and usually a reciprocal interest in my unique view of science from outside. I was also nervous that he'd just be confused about why I needed an entire hour of his very busy time.
I had no cause for worry. Dr. Starr was happy to walk me through the procedure he performed on Mr. W (who had given consent to release the information to me), and explain the challenges of performing VSD surgery on such a young infant at that time. In 1973, the MRI and Echocardiogram were not yet available for diagnosis. Diagnosing the disorder was simply done with a stethoscope and later an xray. That was about it. A VSD surgery on such a young infant was incredibly rare, and they had just recently started performing them. At the time of the surgery, Mr. W was 15 months and 3 days old. Dr. Starr explained to me how they prepared the young heart for the stress of the operation, using ice and cardioplegic solution. He listed medication used during the procedure and throughout recovery, noting recovery time back in '73 versus recovery time today. The surgery itself lasted 4 hours. He described the physiological difference of a healthy infant heart vs one with VSD and explained how exactly the disorder presented itself in the infant body and behavior. I had performed my own research before the meeting and watched a few videos of VSD surgeries that I found online, but with the direct experience and back and forth dialog I walked away with a clear vision of what an infant heart with VSD looked like and how the disorder effected the function of the heart, lungs, body and behavior of the child. This was just what I needed to create the art. He even offered to get me recent videos of him performing the surgery, and offered his own perspective for how an illustration could capture the moment of treatment, rather than the state of illness.
The thing I really wasn't prepared for was his response to my artwork. I brought a few prints with me to show him what I would be using the data for, including a print of my illustration, “Heart” which is drawn with cardiac equations. I pointed out the data I drew it with, explaining that my work aimed to illustrate something beautiful with scientific data that explained its function. Pointing out the equations was easy, as he noticed most of them on his own. His favorite part was the SA and AV node, which is drawn with membrane potential and average firing rate (this is the best part of the drawing if you ask me as well).
He said it was the best illustration of an anatomical heart he had ever seen. This alone is a ridiculously huge complement, especially coming from someone like him who has likely seen thousands of them. He explained to me that for him he approaches the heart logically without emotion, partly because he needs to. He knows that for his patients, the heart and the treatment they receive creates a strong emotional connection for them, and he has often been impressed by their emotional bonds to technological devices like heart valves. He sees the heart valve implant as a useful too, and they see it as something more. He then said that seeing my drawing of the heart was his first experience of feeling an emotional connection to the heart. He said he didn't know why it worked, but that while there was logic in it, there was something more too. He took a moment looking at the drawing and turned to me “It looks so strong.”
I didn't know what to say to that. That kind of response is unforgettable, but it's nothing you expect to hear. I stammered a few thank yous and tried to express myself but pretty much blabbered. Then I just sat for a second, maybe less, and just watched him look at my heart drawing. It really had connected with him. It had reached him, and this had been a moment which in all his years of education and medical experience he had not encountered. I was grateful. I told him he could keep the print if he liked. He quickly went about finding a good place for it in his office.
This experience is hard to explain, and I'm not sure I told it well, but this was a powerful moment for me. I create this work because it fulfills, inspires and challenges me. Seeing it reach someone who has such an integral connection to the subject is something I am very grateful for. I walked out of that meeting feeling like I've been doing something right and that I should keep doing it. I admire and respect the scientific world and the people who devote themselves to it. I am so grateful there is a two way line of communication here.
Not surprisingly, I feel rather inspired to continue my current research on the spine and brain and see if any of the artwork I create from it will have a similar effect on others.