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Picturing Pain


By Elaine Schmidt

Published Jul 30, 2014 8:00 AM

Exhibition gives medical students insight into how individuals experience pain.


So many kinds of pain in the world, but how can someone explain their pain to someone else? By drawing it.

Pain, an exhibition of postcards drawn by patients, depicting their personal interpretations of pain, is on view in the gallery at the Learning Resource Center of the David Geffen School of Medicine through August 31, 2014. The exhibition is there specifically to help medical students understand the experience of pain and illness and to emphasize that doctors must treat the person and not just the disease.

There are 165 drawings from all over the world. “I expected to receive artwork about physical pain, like broken legs,” says gallery curator and guest artist Ted Meyer, who in his own work mixes art and medical images as a way to understand his childhood experiences of illness. “But nearly half of the cards were about emotional pain. That really surprised me.”

To solicit the works, Meyer posted notices on Facebook and websites dedicated to mail-in art. Responses flooded in, illustrating experiences from bunions and cystic fibrosis to pain caused by rape and anxiety. “In some cases, the two [types of pain] were linked, as in, ‘I suffered this injury or disease and now I’m depressed,’” Meyer says.


The exhibition is one of four on view each year as part of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA’s pioneering doctoring program. The three-year curriculum also includes the use of actors and role-playing to explore disease from the patient’s perspective and teach medical students the empathy and listening skills they need to become compassionate caregivers.

“A patient experiences illness in a very different way than a physician does,” says LuAnn A. Wilkerson, Ed.D., senior associate dean for medical education. “These exhibits target mostly first- and second-year students, who haven’t yet been immersed in the clinical setting. For them, disease is still a textbook concept.”

Each exhibition ties thematically to what students are studying in the classroom. Previous shows have focused on cancer, multiple sclerosis, migraine, Alzheimer’s disease, developmental disabilities, sexually transmitted diseases and back pain.

“Art can capture a multitude of meanings and help us see the world in different ways, including understanding what it’s like to live with illness,” Dr. Wilkerson says. “Pain is considered unpleasant, something to be observed from a distance. We hope these images achieve the opposite, by compelling viewers to draw closer and consider how pain affects the whole person.”

This story is based on an article in U Magazine:



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