Beyond the White Coat

Faculty tap their alter egos for a creative approach to life and health

 

Even Albert Einstein, the father of the theory of relativity, a pillar of modern-day physics, had another, less obvious side.

If he wasn’t a physicist, he once declared, he would have been a musician.

“I often think in music,” he said. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. I get most joy in life out of music.”

Was this just a frivolous diversion for Einstein? Is it just fun and games for the surgeon who photographs wildflowers, the autism researcher who plays the cello, the occupational therapist who’s a clown or the dentist who throws clay? Is it simply a way to blow off steam? Or could it be something much deeper, much more essential?

Turns out that to stay healthy, these creative minds require multiple creative outlets, they say. Even more significantly, clowning around or jamming in a jazz band complements and enhances the careers of health professionals and researchers. It refreshes and renews, adds joy and fulfillment.

These “sides,” or alter egos, can be called avenues of self-expression, celebrations of multidimensional characters. But, truth be told, they simply make them better.

Kimatha Grice, O.T.D.

Adults are way too serious.

Instead of playing, adults spend all their time working, Kimatha Oxford Grice grouses. They work so hard, she said, that they’ve forgotten how to play.

And that’s just not OK for her.Kimatha Grace O.T.D.

Dr. Grice, O.T.D., OTR, CHT, is an associate professor of occupational therapy who occasionally teaches class at the Health Science Center as Professor Feather Brains. That is, when she’s not clowning around in a pink wig and colorful dress as Tutti Frutti, her true alter ego.

“[Constant work is] just not healthy,” she said. “The theory that is the basis of occupational therapy is to live awell-rounded life. You have to have leisure interests, things you do that make you have fun and keep you healthier. Being a clown fits me.”

Since she was young, Dr. Grice has been fascinated with clowns. After becoming an occupational therapist, she realized something. As a therapist, she is always making her patients do something that’s uncomfortable, sometimes even painful. What if she could do something that was fun? Even better, what if she could use that fun to help her get patients to do those uncomfortable things?

Her transition into the world of clowning didn’t happen overnight. Clowning, after all, is a serious business that takes planning, character development, schooling, the building up of supplies and skills.

But once she started full-force, she couldn’t stop. Dr. Grice has been clowning since 1991, bringing Tutti Frutti into the lives of her patients, hospitalized children and adults, charity events, birthday parties, nursing homes and community events.

“As a hospital clown, I felt it was a way to give back, and in that setting I got to be in a totally different role. I could go in and play and be funny and do something that wasn’t uncomfortable for patients,” she said.

Clowning isn’t just a recreational outlet to help keep her sane. It’s also like a shot of adrenaline to her spirit. And on a practical side, it’s also made her a better therapist. Dr. Grice works as a certified hand therapist at the Hand Center of San Antonio. She often digs into her clowning prop bag to get her patients to do hand exercises by balloon twisting and making puppets talk.

“Occupational therapists do whatever it takes to get a patient to do what you need them to do,” she said. “That’s why clowning andOT go so well together. I like to play.”

And humor in medicine is important, she said. So important, in fact, that for 14 years she has taught an elective at the Health Science Center called Laughter is the Best Medicine: An Interdisciplinary Elective about Humor, Healing and Healthcare. That’s where Professor Feather Brains makes her occasional cameos dressed in bright purple hair, round black glasses and white doctor’s coat.

“I see clowning as a ministry,” she said. “It’s a God-given talent that I’m using to help people.”

Ronald Stewart, M.D.

Ronald Stewert, M.D.Bluebonnets formed an ocean of blue along the side of the highway last spring. It was an irresistible sight for Ronald M. Stewart, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery and recreational photographer.

Knowing a flower is best photographed at ground level, he pulled over, grabbed his camera and made his way into the field, finally nestling among the flowers to find the best vantage point.

Like surgery, photographing a flower takes concentration and time. Stillness. Quiet.

The minutes ticked by as he lay on his side. Suddenly, his concentration was shattered, first by an EMS unit with sirens, then by a police officer approaching. Turns out, his stillness was mistaken for something quite different—an injured person in need of help.

“I told her, it’s all fine. I’m taking pictures,” he laughed.

Dr. Stewart has been taking pictures since he and his wife, Sherri, were given a camera as a wedding gift in 1982, first in the operating room as a resident and later at his children’s sports games. Nature photography, especially that of wildflowers,
soon followed. Ronald Stewert M.D.

“My photography follows what I would call a normal sort of surgery performance improvement process,” he said. “You think they’re pretty good until you start comparing them to somebody else’s and then you realize they’re not very good. Then you begin gradually tweaking them over time, doing your best, then looking back to see how you could do it a little bit better.”

He’s perfected his style to the point that dozens of his photographs can be seen throughout the Health Science Center’s Medical Arts & Research Center and University Health System’s University Hospital.

Photography isn’t very different from surgery, he said. Both require concentration, as well as precise steps and careful technique, although there may be different approaches to accomplish the same goal. And depending on the operation, surgery can be peaceful, as can lying in a field of flowers.

“There’s an art to both, and there is peace in the complete immersion and flow,” he said.

Yet photography allows him something that is unique: the ability to stop and enjoy something that he might otherwise be too busy to see. Beauty is always around, but sometimes it takes a change in perspective, or lighting, to see it, he said.

“It’s an outlet that is relaxing and gives you time to think,” he said. “One of the things that we’re really short of in the modern world is any quiet time for reflection or thinking in a non-directed way. I think for me, photography gives me that.”

Raymond Palmer, Ph.D.

Raymond Palmer, Ph.D.Every now and then, Raymond Palmer, Ph.D., would ditch a day of high school. He’d wait for his mother to leave for work, then he’d go straight to the garage.

He just had to play a little music.

He’d spend the entire day in that garage, playing the piano, determined to figure out one more Beatles or Jethro Tull song.

“Music is just something I have to do,” he said. And while he played through his undergraduate days, that eventually faded away as he advanced his higher education career, first getting an associate’s degree in physical education,then bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, a nursing degree, and then eventually a Ph.D. in preventative medicine.

Once he became an assistant professor, he just didn’t have the time anymore.

“I became real down, almost borderline depressed. Something big was missing from my life. I was cranky and unsatisfied,” he said. On a trip to the music store one day, where he was surrounded by gleaming guitars and other instruments, he felt an inner joy for what felt like the first time in years. After affirmation from his wife, Cindy, he knew: It was time to start playing music again.

“My existential crisis was over,” he said. “Sometimes you have to give something up because you don’t have time to do it all. And sometimes the things you give up are the things you love and that’s a mistake. You should not do that. That was music for me.”

Raymond Palmer, P.H.D.Dr. Palmer, who now is an associate professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine, is probably best known for his work on environmental neurotoxins and autism. But outside of work, he’s surrounded by the arts. He lives south of downtown in an area popular with art enthusiasts. His home is an 11,000-square-foot industrial space that is part art gallery and studio, brewery, concert venue and residence. Once a month, he hosts musical groups who play in what he calls his “intentional listening room,” a performance space that seats about 35 music lovers. He also plays a modified cello in what he jokingly refers to as a “rhythm and ooze” groove band and keyboard in a jazz band that plays gigs around town.

“I have a friend who once asked, ‘What are you doing in this left-brained academic world? You are so right-brained,’” he said. “There is this whole idea that the left side of your brain is analytical and verbal and the right side is artistic and kinetic, but realistically, we’re all a combination of both.”

Each side works in concert, assisting the other, he said. And music and science aren’t so different, anyway, he added. As a biostatistician, his job is to take data, synthesize it, follow the information and discover associations, which he then presents in a digestible way. He has to perform the statistical analysis, understand what it reveals and, working with a team of other scientists, translate the information to grant-funding agencies. His work researching autism sprouted from a question he had about the causes of the disorder and the desire to find some answers.

Similarly, as a musician, he follows an inner voice, develops sounds, notes or a rhythm that sounds good, then lets them evolve into a groove. It develops and grows. He and his bandmates create music that will stir the audience and speak to them in different ways, translating emotion through music.

In both music and science, there is passion to discover and enlighten, he said. And he needs both to feel complete.

“Your work life doesn’t fulfill the multidimensional aspects of yourself,” he said. “There is more to all of us than just one dimension. It doesn’t always have to be the arts, it could be reading, gardening, physical activity or whatever your passion is. It makes you a better person.”

Keith Hill, D.D.S.
Keith Hill, D.D.S.

He’s too much of a dentist to be considered bohemian. But that doesn’t keep Keith V. Hill, D.D.S., FAGD, from trying, he said.

By day, he’s in Health Science Center clinics leading and supervising a team of 25 students through dental procedures. But on most evenings, after he gets home, he grabs his backpack and bike and rides to a local haven for ceramic artists—the Alamo CityPottery Workshop.

There, the fridge is stocked with beer and shelves are lined with pottery projects in the works. And Dr. Hillhas his own wheel, where he throws clay and molds it into art.

Keith Hill, D.D.S.After 38 years in dentistry, the last seven spent teaching, dentistry is what he thinks about before sleep takes over. It’s his first thought in the morning. As he’s driving home from work, he’s thinking about different techniques to share with his students.

“I think it’s true about any medical profession, it can become all you’re about,” said Dr. Hill, assistant professor in the Department of General Dentistry. “You need multiple diversions to break the train of thought and give your brain a rest, give your body some rejuvenation, recreation and do something completely opposite of what you are engaged in.”

At the point where dentistry became all-consuming, Dr. Hill decided it was time to find an outlet. He never thought of himself as artistically inclined, but he saw his father find joy in oil painting. Art, he mused, could be one way to break away from the rigidity of his profession and bring some peace to his overworked brain.

“There are very exacting protocols to accomplish a dental procedure and we’re very rigidly trying to achieve perfection in everything that we do,” he said. “The only way I knew to find release or a mode of expressing my individuality was to start doing some artwork, and I had always been fascinated with ceramics.”

After more than a dozen ceramics classes in the span of about five years, Dr. Hill’s distraction has become more than a hobby. It’s become his therapy. To date, he’s created upwards of 300 bowls. Some are painted in vibrant colors in homage to the multicultural city he lives in, others are textured and glazed in soothing earth tones. He uses the paintbrushes his dad used, and feels an emotional connection to the man who introduced art into his life.

Dr. Hill used to give away his bowls to students at Christmastime as gag gifts. Today, students and colleagues alike ask him for his pieces. They decorate the School of Dentistry, often sitting atop desktops and shelves. He’s also started selling his artwork, participating in local art shows and sales through the pottery workshop.

Though dentistry must be exact, art is fluid and flexible. He has learned that imperfections can lead to beautiful and functional art. Flexibility is one of the things he likes the most about ceramics.

“Dentists tend to be terribly critical of themselves, even when a procedure has been successful. When you create something away from your profession, it helps you be a little bit more flexible and not be so hard on yourself. It helps me be a little more tolerant, and recognize that in anything we do, there are going to be flaws and imperfections. Even with great success, even with something that looks beautiful.

“And it has added something else that’s important. It has added to my mental health.”

 

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