What’s art, doc?

The Nevada School of Medicine’s artist in residence

Chris Robertson with mahogany human heart and Ivory soap donkey. He carved them both.

Chris Robertson with mahogany human heart and Ivory soap donkey. He carved them both.

Photo/Kris Vagner

The University of Nevada School of Medicine’s Artist in Residence Show and Reception is scheduled for 3:30-6 p.m., May 12, in the Tahoe Tower Lobby, Renown Regional Medical Center, 1155 Mill St.

This week, Chris Robertson will graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno with a Doctor of Medicine degree. Afterward, he plans to complete his residency in Provo, Utah, then move back to his native Wyoming to work in family medicine. But first, he’ll have an art show.

Robertson is part of the School of Medicine’s Artist in Residence program, an elective offered to fourth-year med students.

Robertson has long been a hobbyist wood carver. He’s been picking up techniques from YouTube videos for about 12 years.

“I find a lot of comfort and stress relief in it,” he said. Until this year, med students participating in the program focused on just that, how working with their hands—or voices or instruments—can help them manage the everyday stress of a medical career. This year, program administrators upped the stakes a bit. The course description now states that skills commonly used in art—“observation, analysis, empathy and self-reflection” are “essential for humane medical care.”

“They wanted me to branch out into, how can I help the community,” said Robertson, unwrapping a life-sized mahogany sculpture of a heart, complete with ventricles and arteries. In addition to spending about 100 hours carving and polishing the sculpture with a 14,000-grit dental attachment on his rotary tool, Robertson developed a plan to carve with chemotherapy patients.

“People who have to sit for 6-8 hours with a TV or Sudoku,” he said. “It’s a very long time to be sitting there in a chair doing nothing.”

He visited patients at Renown Regional Medical Center, where he laid down a drop cloth and brought in carving tools and Ivory soap, far more malleable than mahogany. He gave them some pointers, and about two hours later patients had small finished sculptures.

“It was really interesting,” Robertson said. He explained that soap has to be chipped away bit by bit, not in large chucks, or it will break.

“One patient said the act of removing that soap was like taking her stress away bit by bit,” he added.

Many organizations, including Americans for the Arts and the National Institutes of Health, have published studies linking arts and music with accelerated healing in hospital patients. Daniel Ignatiuk, a fourth-year medical student who completes his studies in Las Vegas this week and also took the Artist in Residence elective, is particularly interested in the results of a Journal of Pediatrics study concluding that music, “particularly live music,” has a positive effect on the health of infants.

Ignatiuk has a background in jazz trumpet, and for the Renown reception he’ll present a musical piece.

“I used a music production software,” he said. “I used drums to recreate what heart sounds look like.” He layered bass and guitar tracks over the heart sounds, and for the final presentation he’ll play an improvisational trumpet piece live over the samples.

“It’s something that is best understood by hearing it,” Ignatiuk said.

A third graduating medical student, Gerrit Dunford, also completing his studies in Las Vegas, plans to perform five jazz-influenced musical pieces he’s written, one on each of the five stages of grief.

Once these fresh graduates enter the field, will they continue practicing art and music? Robertson, for one, said he’s sold on the idea.

“I foresee that artistry [in medicine] will only increase,” he said. “We’re seeing the benefits of these alternative methods of healing. Artistry is really right there at the top of what we can do to help our patients.