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The Surgeon as Artist: A Gift of the Heart

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Hassan A. Tetteh, MD, FACS
Walter Reed National Medical Center
Bethesda, MD, USA

The recent Congress of the American College of Surgery held in San Francisco had a number of topics in the humanities offered among the many surgical science academic talks presented. To my surprise "The Surgeon as Artist" presentation was filled to capacity in a large room of the convention center. A panel of physicians and surgeons shared personal experiences and perspectives and displayed and commented on works of art created by surgeons. The depth, complexity, beauty, and brilliance of the collective works were impressive.

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Images of paintings appeared on the screen that were moving and reflected an uncanny creativity. A common theme emerged as each panelist spoke and provided the background of each featured work. Art for the surgeons was an escape. The panelists offered that the surgeons' works of music, paintings, poetry, and sculpture were a means to remove oneself from the operating room theater and invest energy in another pursuit. Through art, surgeons could "escape the tyranny of the daily that trumps the pursuits of the remarkable".

Indeed, the art was remarkable. Then it appeared. A book cover of "Gifts of the Heart" flashed on the floor-to-ceiling screen. As a member of the audience, I immediately recognized the book's cover. The panelist described the book as a work of fiction written by a surgeon specializing in heart and lung transplantation. The book was my novel!

Gifts of the Heart was written after my return from an Afghanistan deployment in Helmand Province with the Marines. The story captures the transformation of a civilian transplant surgeon on the battlefield who quickly becomes a seasoned combat surgeon in the Afghan desert. The main character faces the austere challenges of the desert and heat and also negotiates the emotional challenges of loss, sacrifice, death, and redemption that are commensurate with both transplantation and war.

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The Gift of Life chapter highlights the experience of the transplant surgeon and team. Their work always places them on both sides of the continuum of life. At the donor's bedside, tragedy takes away life and the circumstances create an opportunity for a gift of life to be given to someone else in need. Decisions for the families are often hard, and the finality signals that hope for recovery had vanished. Sadness, grief, and loss are omnipresent. When consent for donation is given, it is an incredible gift and it means that loved ones were letting go - and hoping their gift of life will live on in another person.

At the heart transplant recipient's bedside, joy, anxiety, anticipation, and emotions are high. Patients with a failing heart, are often very sick, living an uncomfortable life and facing death in a matter of months, weeks, or even days. The gift of a new heart, they hope, would bring new life. Transplant patients can often feel themselves at the fringe of life, familiar with their mortality, and seldom waste a moment brooding over petty things.

It was surreal to have the book displayed, and I had no prior knowledge that Gifts of the Heart would be highlighted at the American College of Surgery's presentation of The Surgeon as Artist. It was a proud moment. Similar to performing complex surgery, writing a book, and particularly a creative novel, is an experience that engenders great humility.

Reflection on my experience as an artist confirmed that art is not simply an escape from the work, but necessary to provide energy and inspiration to do the work even better. This observation was highlighted by the response and positive affect on patients during a recent Healing Arts exhibit for wounded warriors at our military hospital. I suspect it is also the reason why art is ubiquitous on hospital walls, sculpture is displayed, and music often fills the air. Art indeed is a gift for the heart. As my daughter, the artist admonishes, without 'art' the heart is just "eh". ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose. The views expressed in this article ar those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positition of the Department of the Navy, Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Tetteh HA. Gifts of the heart, 1st ed. Bethesda, MD: TCG Publishing; 2013. Pg. 46.

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