This week, I am inspired by my multi-talented husband, Dr. Jarred Johnson, to discuss the role of art and creativity in healthcare. Jarred’s birthday was last Thursday and we celebrated quietly due a number of events around the house over the week. His mother and grandmother came to visit for birthday dinner, and he presented to his mother with typical modesty, this, his first painting ever:
To appreciate the profoundness of this, you have to know Jarred. Those who do would describe him as many things: intelligent, funny, sensitive, lover of abstract physics, podcasts, the New York Knicks and obscure Youtube videos… They might describe him as a great listener, loyal friend, caring husband and son, or tout some of his most notable abilities: a talented physician whose patients often send praise to his superiors, a great basketball player, above average golfer, accomplished poker player, and spectacular cook. However, most of them would not describe him with the words artistic, artist or creative. Jarred, himself, I think would hesitate to use those words. I would disagree.
After his sense of humor and charm, the quality that drew me to this man eight years ago was his cooking prowess. The first meal he cooked for me was juicy, flaky, marinated, pistachio-crusted salmon, served over perfectly cooked risotto, with a side of roasted asparagus, lightly seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper. Yes. Drool.
I, on the other hand, in our first year of medical school, primarily cooked by zapping Tostito chips with cheddar cheese in the microwave, served with a freshly opened jar of salsa. He is an exceptional cook. And I think it is obvious that to be an excellent cook invokes a level of creativity, an ability to adjust one's approach during food preparation in order to accommodate the unexpected.
Say for example, the dog vomits on the floor and you suddenly have to leave the stove to clean up, or at the last minute your spouse tells you they used up that fresh spinach for a smoothie that morning, not knowing it was part of your meal plan for the evening. Or maybe you just hate ginger but really want to try a recipe that happens to include ground ginger. There is an element of spur of the moment adjustment that requires knowledge as well as creativity in some cases.
Additonally, there is planned innovation in both cooking and medicine. After mastering basic skills and techniques, high-end chefs commercially and at home apply those skills to create new and innovative recipes that make our mouths water. The other night, for example, Jarred made short ribs in his new pressure cooker by combining elements from several different recipes that he thought would go well together, and they did.
Similarly, in medicine, we must learn and follow the evidence, but understand that each patient is unique and so the combination of health promotions and disease treatments must be tailored, like an individualized recipe. There is no one study that can capture the needs of any individual patient, so we must create management strategies based on the different elements of studies that we think will best suit that person's needs. There are also times where there is simply no evidence to guide us in treating a certain symptoms or disease, and in those cases we must create something brand new, based on what we understand about what already exists.
Mastering either cooking or medicine necessitates knowledge of the fundamental science and skills involved. Once you have the fundamentals, you can be creative in how you adjust to a setback in the expected course. You can also problem solve, correcting your course if your soup is unexpectedly salty or if your patient's blood pressure is too high. And you can innovate to develop a new, gluten-free version of your grandmother's classic meatballs, or to treat someone like my mother whose disease (multiple system atrophy) is so rare and its presentation so varied, there are no hard and fast rules for managing it.
Jarred has achieved excellent mastery of the skills for cooking, and now has been able to become creative. When he started cooking, he followed the recipe book, even up until four or five years ago. I would often get frustrated with him when he would cook (I know, ungrateful!) because he would go to the grocery store and buy every single ingredient listed, even some obscure herb like ground cloves, which would then sit on the shelf and go stale because we never used it again. Slowly, he has become an artist in the kitchen, working with what we have, modifying as appropriate, and producing spectacular foods.
All of this is to say that while Jarred was surprised by his ability to paint a really lovely landscape (using oil paints of all things, in my opinion one of the most challenging artistic media out there), I was not.
He used this old Bob Ross paint set that I had never opened, and it came complete with instructions on how to paint a certain picture. He had also been studying Bob Ross for several weeks before he laid brush to canvas (as an aside: anyone who doesn't know Bob Ross needs to watch a few minutes of his videos, the man is a zen painting genius). He followed the instructions and his painting looked great. This is the awesome and humble start of creating: studying fundamental skills and practicing them, even imitating them at first.
Austin Kleon is an author and artist who wrote a great little book called “How to Steal Like an Artist,” in which he argues that all art starts with imitation, then builds on or diverges from what came before. Well doesn’t all science do the same? I’m reminded of the quote by Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered gravity: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Jarred has gotten a taste of the experience of oil painting, and now he wants to learn the techniques and skills that will improve his abilities, so that he can create works in the future that are uniquely his. He picked up several books on oil painting techniques from a local book sale, and purchased a new set of paints and canvases. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that if he continues to study and practice the basic skills, just as he did with cooking and medicine, that he will master these, and then be able to adapt them for his own needs and ideas as well.