May 2017

Out on a limb: Healing arts

By Jordana Bieze Foster, Editor

Healthcare practitioners and artists wouldn’t seem to have much in common, other than perhaps an appreciation of anatomy. But a new book has made me think the two professions also share an appreciation of people.

I’m no expert on art, and I hadn’t heard of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting “Christina’s World” until coming across a study in the medical literature suggesting that the woman who posed for the painting, previously thought to have been a polio survivor, instead seems likely to have had Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. So I was intrigued that Christina Baker Kline (best known for her historical novel Orphan Train) chose to focus her latest novel on Wyeth’s muse, Christina Olson.

A Piece of the World follows Wyeth’s Christina as her upper and lower extremity function deteriorates throughout her life; by the time she poses for Wyeth in 1948, she cannot walk at all but continues to maintain the Maine farmhouse where she lives with her brother by pushing herself around on all fours.

Wyeth had considered a career in medicine before turning to art, but in the book, his interest in Christina has less to do with the clinical aspects of her impairments and more to do with how her experiences have shaped her as a person.

“I think you’re used to being observed but not really…seen,” he tells her. “People are always concerned about you, worried about you, watching to see how you’re getting on. Well-meaning of course, but—intrusive. And I think you’ve figured out how to deflect their concern, or pity, or whatever it is, by carrying yourself in this dignified, aloof way.”

Sound familiar?

The painting shows Christina lying—not quite comfortably—on a blanket in the field behind the rustic farmhouse. Christina was in her 50s when she posed for the painting, but Wyeth chose to depict her as a young woman. In the book, he reminds Christina that she once told him she sees her true self not as an invalid, a burden, a dutiful daughter—but as a girl.

Kline writes: There she is, that girl, on a planet of grass … What she wants most—what she truly yearns for—is what any of us want: to be seen. And look. She is.

Christina Olson was born too soon to benefit from the advances in orthotic technology, physical therapy, and surgery that are available to modern-day patients. A horrific experience with clamp braces as a young girl made her wary of doctors for the rest of her life.

Like Christina Olson, your patients want to be seen. And you don’t have to be an artist like Andrew Wyeth to make that happen.

But her story is a reminder that therapeutic interventions aren’t all that lower extremity clinicians have to offer patients. Your patients —especially those who have struggled for years with chronic impairments—don’t just want to be realigned and offloaded and strengthened and straightened. And they definitely don’t want to be pitied.

Your patients want what Christina Olson wanted, what Andrew Wyeth was able to give her that no doctor ever was. They want to be seen. And you don’t have to be a famous artist to make that happen.

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