i visit a brain bank

Much of my research comes via anatomy books and the internet. I make the occasional trip (2 weeks ago in fact) to the Science Center. And I will admit to appreciating the Body World exhibit (as well as Gunther von Hagen’s dissection videos).  I have toured a number of labs, including Barrow’s some years ago. This week I visit a brain bank with new work in mind.

Driving to Sun City where Banner Sun Health Research Institute is located, I think about Kathleen Bartolomei (UrbanLab LLC) who connects me to Maribeth Gallagher (Hospice of the Valley), who directs me to Jan Dougherty (Special Projects Consultant at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute), whom introduces me to Dr. Thomas Beach and his research center -so that I might better appreciate the human brain in full, in part, and under the microscope.

I could title this post No Woman is an Island.

I arrive and meet Geidy, a Neuroanatomist. She will take me through the facility until Dr. Beach, who is in a meeting, becomes available.

She points out workstations each with a dry ice pad and scale, among other things.

Lab workstations

This particular lab is unique in that it requires rapid autopsy (within 3-hours postmortem) to ensure the highest quality tissue. Geidy explains, there is always an on call team to do the work. I assume donors have to live in the area. They do and she emphasizes the need for controlled brains, including enrolling a potential donor and meeting with them. She clarifies the work here is to study the aging process.

A good idea, I think to myself, because we are living longer.

The first area we enter includes a high-powered microscope and large computer screen. I don’t photograph the space because we plan to return after walking the lab. We never do come back.

Geidy announces we’ll make stops in various rooms on our way to the morgue. I’ve avoided morgues my whole life, is all that comes to mind.

I believe she identifies these refrigerators as -80°C lab freezers, which I understand now are ultra-low freezers.

Freezers

We walk through several rooms with rows and rows of tissue samples.

Brain tissue samples

Heart tissue samples

Organ tissue storage

With over 3000 people enrolled as donors, this lab has performed 1400 autopsies since 1987.

We make our way to the morgue.

I ask a particular question and Geidy says … because I am a Scientist, I would not say that. What I will say is…etc. I am aware of her ability for careful listening and mindful answering. Naturally I’m compelled to try to do the same.

Before she brings brain tissue out for me to see, she ends a part of our conversation by noting she believes they are finding better ways of diagnosing insults to the brain.

The brain appears so delicate and so beautiful. She notes pathology in the sample she holds. We talk about gray (not really gray) and white matter. 

Coronal section of the brain

When I later show my husband these 2 photos, he reacts by saying it looks like highly conductive material. Yes it is. I pose a (philosophical) question but he has no response for me.

Cerebellum

Taken aback by the cerebellum (the little brain), I know my renderings are on point.

Below is the left hemisphere of the brain. Knowing my artwork will include the normal brain and the brain with dementia, I ask Do you have diseased tissue samples?  No, she does not.

External structure – left hemisphere of the brain

Geidy points out the Corpus Callosum and notes the area is where the 2 hemispheres connect (center flat horizontal area in image below). I don’t say it out loud but I recall corpus callosum is Latin for tough body.

Midsaggital Plane – left hemisphere of the brain

Surprised that she brings out a heart (below), I see it is unusually large with (too much) visible fat. This prompts a conversation about age, aging, weight gain and weight loss.

Heart

As we exit the morgue I photograph a curtain rack sitting in the hallway. It has an image of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. I recall the da Vinci book my father gives me that is currently sitting on my drawing table at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Finding the particular visual here represents for me a nod to timing and all that is right.

Walking back down the hallway, I hope to return to the area where the microscope sets up. I am eager to look at neurohistology. We meet Dr. Beach at the entrance to his lab and introductions take place. I also say goodbye to Geidi and thank her. She tells me she’ll go to the exhibit and she’ll invite her colleagues. It’s the sort of thing they’d all enjoy.

Dr. Beach and I have a very different interaction. He is curious to know what I am doing. I share a few drawings with him and one of his colleagues. I tell him about the artist residency and my father. He shares books and images with me. He explains particulars about dementia and Alzheimer’s. We look over some scans I bring along and he talks anatomy (CAT scan) and chemistry (PET scan). He tells me about glucose and synaptic connection.

We discuss the hippocampus and at one point he explains it is involved in only a small part of dementia (Alzheimer’s). He states dementia is a global loss of thinking. It’s not just about memory, it is about language (input and output), it is about losing ones understanding of abstraction…losing metaphor…and losing mathematics. He emphasizes…the whole of the cerebral cortex…is affected.

I ask about people who specifically use their intellect. I realize quickly everyone uses their intellect but I want to understand how an avid reader and thinker might be affected by dementia.  How (I really want to say why) does it take them (anyone)? Perhaps the root of my question is more emotional than logical. His general response is simple – the more one does with their brain (their mind) the longer it will take for it (the disease) to bring them down (I paraphrase).

Can you see a cure happening in your life time? He pauses before answering and I imagine it is because he is a scientist and wants to answer in a factual way. I suppose he can’t know the duration of his life. His response is firm – Yes. We will find a cure.

In your life time?  He may have answered – within 20 years – and then maybe changed his answer to 10 years. I can’t say for sure. I am listening intently though I forget to write this detail.

I never make it to the microscope to look at histology. It’s after lunch now and we’re both ready for a break. He extends an invitation for me to observe an autopsy. My name would  be put on a call list. I don’t jump at the opportunity. I’m good here and now.

As I make the drive home, I know the brain to be a most extraordinary organ. It is not like a computer. It is not a machine. It is a living thing – enfolding life.

In my artist statement I write about my interest in both the physical body and the subtle body. Perhaps I should use the words gross (what is visible to the eye) and subtle (what is not visible to the eye). Right in this moment I understand the brain to be the best example of this.

Thank you to everyone who helped direct me to the Banner Sun Health Research Center. Thank you Geidy Serrano for the tour. And thank you Dr. Thomas Beach (Senior Scientist and Lab Head) for the opportunity to meet with you.


draw: the art of curiosity and innovation is now open and continues through Sept 1, 2018. I am 1of 3 Artists-in-Residence through Aug 3, 2018. You can find me there every Tuesday, and depending on the week, either Thursday or Saturday.
More info → Gallery at TCA


 

art in medicine – nothing in stasis

I spend the day with the crew at the University of Arizona’s medical school. I am in downtown Phoenix, at the Health Sciences Education Building, installing Nothing In Stasis, my most recent (years of work actually) drawings and paintings.

Walking in this morning, I see a group of students looking closely at my largest canvas that at the moment leans against a wall. I hear someone call out the name of a muscle. Someone else points out the thyroid.  I smile as I approach them and someone asks,  Are you the artist?  This is so accurate, she says. I hope so, I respond. I identify the figures in the painting and we talk about the content.

In between classes I catch students looking at artwork.  Either I am introduced by someone or I introduce myself. I completely enjoy it.

I shoot a series of photos ↓ while sitting in the corner working out a hanging system. Again, students are between classes. One young woman looks at one drawing and then another. She calls a friend over and says something to her as she points. I decide to walk over and introduce myself (all the while feeling like John Quiñones on What Would You Do).

The one female asks me if the surrounding organs signify something about the people depicted.

Yes! You’re correct!
Are they people you know?
My niece, my father and my mother. 

We discuss the compositions of my parents.  They clearly recognize and appreciate the details.

I don’t know how many students I connect with on this busy afternoon but each conversation brings insight.  Are you a medical doctor? My not so scientific response – No, but maybe in another life I was.

Before the afternoon is over I gather how meaningful the usual art works are  to the students, faculty, and staff. They have rotating exhibitions here. And for some reason this last month there has been no art on their walls. I am, in fact, putting my work up 2 weeks ahead of schedule. I clearly hear and see the art element is missed by most everyone.

I speak with Cynthia Standley,  who among other things organizes the Art in Medicine programming. We discuss the value of art in this particular educational setting. We talk about the connection between art and medicine (science) in terms of skill building: observation, critical thinking and communication. She notes how the skills enhance patient care. I note these are the very same skills I teach my drawing students.

I learn they have a partnership with the Phoenix Arts Museum as does our Department of Art at Phoenix College.

At the end of a long day, I sit and watch the natural light flood the now quiet area.

On a side note: When I agree to have a solo at the medical school, I am unaware they have a room with glass walls ↑ and they don’t know I have 2-sided translucent drawings. A medical school with glass walls…perfect!

My studio is empty. I have 60-plus drawings and paintings hanging in the Health Sciences Education Building at the Phoenix Bio-Medical Campus located a few blocks South of the Roosevelt Row Arts District.

The exhibition titled Nothing In Stasis will be showing to April of 2018. The area is open to the public and allows for visitors. An artist reception is in the planning for February’s First Friday. More info to come.


Health Sciences Education Building
Phoenix Biomedical Campus (PBC)
435 N. 5th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85004-2230
Map (PDF)
Parking Information