On becoming a medical illustration subject….

Being raised in a medical family, at an early age I became desensitized to seeing the human body represented in various stages in a variety of image making media.  For our family of children, Father’s various textbooks and medical journals were as available for our perusal as perhaps the ubiquitous National Geographic magazines were in many North American homes.

I particularly loved to look at the very fine line drawing illustrations of muscle becoming ligament and the layering and inter-relationship between closely spaced muscle forms which help to articulate the various body parts.  The close observation by the illustrator created a clarity of understanding much more than did photographs of the same muscle masses. Later as an art student I reveled in drawing parts of the skeleton available in the studio, and also in trying to establish the skeletal structure of the posed model in life drawing classes.

It was always the photographic depictions of skin conditions, in early years in black and white, and in later ones in full colour, that caused in me the greatest discomforting reactions.  For, it was obvious to me that the bodies photographed were of persons still living, despite the fact of anonymity being scrupulously observed.  Faces were blocked out with little black rectangles. Disembodied torsos, one after the other, illustrated massive infections in a staggering variety. However, the pictures did not convey the agony and discomfort of the patients, they merely depicted conditions.

It was not until 1988 when I was in hospital for treatment of AML (acute myelogenous leukemia) that the opportunity, if it may be called that, of becoming a medical illustration subject presented itself. During the first rounds of chemotherapy, Ara-C was one of the medications administered intravenously. In response, my body had a major allergic response to this medication. I itched terribly and developed a livid, mottled red rash all over my torso and legs. On rounds, the doctors stated ” Yes, this is a classic Ara-C rash.” They prescribed a little green pill to mitigate the itching. They probably called the medical illustration department to summon the photographer to capture forever this classic example of rash.

I was shortly visited, on a lovely sunny spring afternoon (good light) by a very brisk and officious man bearing a shiny aluminum photographer’s briefcase.  He introduced himself and explained what he was about to do; this while assembling lens to camera body in a no-nonsense manner. He asked me to climb out of bed and stand near my IVpole and drop my hospital gown.  I complied with this request in as modest a manner as was available to me.  If I blushed, he really couldn’t tell due to my overall rotten tomato colouration.  He looked through the lens then decided the angle of the photo would be wrong;  I was very short, he was quite higher up and was shooting downward. “Please climb, back onto the bed, and we’ll try again”, he suggested.  Back onto the bed I crawled, meanwhile trying to be covered as much as possible. He, however, didn’t like what he saw through the lens and requested me to kneel up in bed for the shot. To me, by this time getting tired of the proceedings, this had unfortunate elements of a Playboy photo shoot, and I was beginning to get quite grumpy. The photographer still wasn’t satisfied.  He had fired off a couple of kneeling shots of my exposed abdomen and breasts. His next request pushed my grumpiness up a notch toward irateness – he asked me to stand up on the mattress, and keep balanced while he would shoot off several frames (carefully bracketed, one assumes).  I pointed over his shoulder and suggested he look at the calendar drawn up on the white-board behind him.  There in plain black and white were my daily counts of hemoglobin, white blood and platelets, with that day’s counts having plummeted to an all time low.  I said that I was dizzy, due to the low hemoglobin count and standing up in bed would cause me to be quite unsure of my footing and very insecure. Furthermore, with my platelet counts so low, if If I fell off the bed I would have a major bleed, so I demurred.  He was quite chastened, dismantled his camera and reassembled his case, mumbled a quick thanks and practically ran from my room.

Left there in deshabille, I was struggling to put on my hospital gown and then straighten my messed up bed, mulling over the possibility that next year’s medical students on rotation through Hemotology would see in their textbooks a brilliantly coloured, disembodied, headless, armless torso sporting a “classic ARA-C rash”, of unknown female subject, 41 years old.

As I struggled to regain composure I moved the IV pole to it’s correct position by the bed head, and settled onto the covers to watch the Pirates of Penzance video my Mother had brought in for me. My primary nurse, a fresh-faced new nursing graduate stuck her head in the door and asked,

“What on earth did you do to the medical photographer? He practically ran from the ward and didn’t linger to chat us up!”

Yes, medical photographers must have their tough days – with ugly and unwilling subjects.

3 Responses to “On becoming a medical illustration subject….”

  1. Michèle Says:

    Well that’s a vivid description of what must have been a horrible experience…A bit of compassion on his part might have gone a long way with you…well at least you are still here to tell the tale !

  2. Deborah Barlow Says:

    Thanks for yet another memorable account from a life richly lived.

    Your posting brought to mind the work of Alison Lapper. If you don’t know of her, check out her website:


    Unforgettable images that cause me to reconsider the nature of a body, the nature of beauty, the grandeur of the spirit.

  3. Nita Says:

    Very well written and vividly presented. I was quite struck by your post. I could identfy with it as well because when I was having my first baby I have had a similar experience. Some trainee medic was watching and making impersonal comments to a colleague as if I were a thing, and not a human being going through labour pains. I may have been in pain, but I could hear every word and it irritated me no end.

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