In San Francisco, Brain Surgeons Explore Their Practice Through Art

Neurosurgeon Katherine Ko stands next to her painting "Craniotomy in G Sharp," a depiction of her drilling a skull in preparation for brain surgery. "It's kind of a self portrait," she says. (April Dembosky/KQED)

Neurosurgeon Kathryn Ko stands next to her painting “Craniotomy in G Sharp,” a depiction of her drilling a skull in preparation for brain surgery. “It’s kind of a self portrait,” she says. (April Dembosky/KQED)

SAN FRANCISCO — Most of the Moscone Center exhibit hall is full of looming medical machines: brain scanners and brain mappers. Men in suits wait for the wandering neurosurgeon to pass by so they can pounce with their pitch for the latest, greatest technology that will change brain surgery forever.

“Patterns repeat themselves over and over in nature. We see that in our work and in anatomy.” 

But back at exhibit booth 630, it’s a different scene. An art show. Paintings and photographs depict abstract interpretations by neurosurgeons of their work, portraits of neurosurgery patients and natural landscapes that offer a striking resemblance to the human brain.

“Music, art, the visual, the senses — matches and melds with medicine,” says Dr. Kathryn Ko, a neurosurgeon from New York who curated the show. “We like to see that left brain, right brain cross over. It’s a respite where you don’t have to concentrate. You can just let your eyes roam.”


The theme of this year’s American Association of Neurological Surgeons annual conference is “Expanding Neurosurgery” and Ko wanted to expand beyond the scientific. Throughout the exhibit space, she hung sheets of music from Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It was an insightful choice for a neurosurgeon. The composer wrote the piano suite after a dear friend died of a brain aneurysm, and he based the work on his experience walking through an exhibit of the friend’s drawings.

Ko played on the theme further, creating installations that overlaid surgical instruments on the sheet music. She dropped medical supplies into her own paintings.

(April Dembosky/KQED)

The photographer-neurosurgeon who took this picture at Yellowstone National Park says it reminded her of the surface of the brain. (April Dembosky/KQED)

“One of my pieces is called ‘Craniotomy in G sharp,’” she says, pointing to a canvas that closes in on a surgeon’s hands opening a skull. “It’s because the drill that we use to open the brain, when it’s properly working, emits the sound that is G sharp. And because I have perfect pitch I can tell whether or not the nurses have turned the drill on properly.”

Another piece, displayed on a music stand, uses white and red gauze to create an impression of a needle holder, a tool used to suture skin after surgery.

“The needle has a little bit of glitter on it so it catches your eye as you walk by,” she says.

For Shelly Timmons, a trauma neurosurgeon from Pennsylvania, she sees her work in nature. She displayed two photographs she took of geysers in Yellowstone National Park.

“Patterns repeat themselves over and over in nature,” she says. “We see that in our work and in anatomy.”

One photo shows a flat sandy rock flanked by blue and clear water.

“This particular piece reminds me a lot of the surface of the brain,” she says. “There’s a structure in the brain called the choroid plexus, which produces spinal fluid. This piece reminds me of that, and it’s surrounded by fluid so it’s sort of thematic.”

A neurosurgeon's portrait of a mother and child in Mombasa, Kenya. The child was treated for hydrocephalus, a condition where spinal fluid builds up in the brain. (April Dembosky/KQED)

A neurosurgeon’s portrait of a mother and child in Mombasa, Kenya. The child was treated for hydrocephalus, a condition where spinal fluid builds up in the brain. (April Dembosky/KQED)

The human side of neurosurgery comes through as well. Dr. Bob Dempsey, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Wisconsin, displayed a portrait of a woman he took while working in Africa. She is dressed in a colorful wrap, gazing down at her child.

“I call this the face of hydrocephalus,” he says. “Hydrocephalus is a condition where spinal fluid in the central nervous system builds up in the brain, causing pressure. It ends in mental retardation, paralysis or death. It’s a very endemic problem in the developing world.”

It is reversible, though, and after he treated this woman’s child, he asked if he could take her picture.

“The compositor was hers, just the way she cared for the child, and all I did was try to capture that,” he says.

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