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Neurosurgeons Express Their Medical Challenges Through Art

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Neurosurgery is a stressful occupation. So is being a neurosurgical patient. With their superior eyes and hand skills, some neurosurgeons are turning to making art, and several are getting exposure at art exhibits throughout the country - including at this year's annual meeting of neurosurgeons. From member station KQED in San Francisco, April Dembosky sent us this audio postcard.

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: For brain surgeon Kathryn Ko (ph), art, music and medicine all overlap. In her work, she likes to meld the analytical mind with the creative.

KATHRYN KO: We like to see that crossing over - right brain, left brain crossover.

DEMBOSKY: Walking through one of her recent exhibits, you have to dodge sheet music hanging between paintings or crumpled on the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION")

DEMBOSKY: The pages are from "Pictures At An Exhibition," the seminal work by Modest Mussorgsky. The Russian composer wrote it in 1874 in memory of an artist friend of his who died of a brain aneurysm. Ko thought that was fitting for an art installation by neurosurgeons. She walks me over to one of her 3-D pieces. It's an impression of a surgical tool used for sewing wounds, layered with gauze. It's framed in a black box and set on a music stand.

KO: The suture, the needle, has a little bit of glitter on it so that it catches your eye as you walk by. One of my pieces is called "Craniotomy In G Sharp."

DEMBOSKY: She points to a painting of a drill poised over an exposed skull.

KO: It is because the drill that we use to open the brain, when it's properly working, emits the sound which is G sharp.

DEMBOSKY: She says a regular G, or an A, won't work.

KO: And because I have perfect pitch, I can tell whether or not the nurses have turned the drill on properly.

DEMBOSKY: Ko calls this piece a kind of self-portrait. Other neurosurgeons choose more abstract ways to explore the work they do in the hospital. Trauma surgeon, Shelly Timmons, looks for colors and shapes in land and water that remind her of cell structures in the brain.

SHELLY TIMMONS: I see a lot of repetitive patterns in nature.

DEMBOSKY: One of her photographs is a close up of a geyser in Yellowstone National Park.

TIMMONS: There's a structure in the brain called the choroid plexus which produces spinal fluid, and this piece particularly reminds me of that. And it's surrounded by fluid, so it's sort of thematic, I guess.

DEMBOSKY: Another neurosurgeon, Bob Dempsey, takes a more literal approach. He shows me a photograph he took of a mother cradling her child in Africa. He calls it is "The Face Of Hydrocephalus."

BOB DEMPSEY: Hydrocephalus is a condition where the spinal fluid in the central nervous system builds up in the brain causing pressure and progressive loss of brain function.

DEMBOSKY: But it is reversible. After Dempsey treated the child, he asked the mother if he could take a picture. Art has helped Kathryn Ko make sense of her work in the operating room. She works late hours treating people harmed in car accidents and gunfights. Some of the patients she's lost over the years show up in her paintings, the way Mussorgsky's friends showed up in his music.

KO: You never forget them. Yeah. You never forget them.

DEMBOSKY: Ko says her work often begins with a scalpel and finishes with a paintbrush. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funeralswon the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009. April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.