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Touching the trauma behind the disease

January 2009

Published in the January 2009 issue of Today’s Hospitalist

WHEN SCULPTOR AND HOSPITALIST Lorraine Bonner, MD, thinks about what she can accomplish in her part-time practice as a nocturnist, she has an image of herself as a physician, waiting by the side of a river to pull drowning patients out.

“I resuscitate them, and that’s noble, that’s good,” says Dr. Bonner, who works six nights a month at Alameda Hospital in Alameda, Calif. “But art to me is about going upstream and seeing where patients are being thrown off a cliff into the water and documenting that.”

Even in the early 1980s, when Dr. Bonner worked as a community internist, she focused on the mind-body connection by teaching self-hypnosis and meditation to patients with chronic illnesses like hypertension.

“But I began to realize that there were larger social forces “like racism and economic disparity ” that made it impossible for patients to fully take responsibility for their health,” she says.

That insight, as well as recovered memories of personal trauma, led her in the early 1990s to start working in clay and stone. Her sculptures, which tend to focus on heads and torsos, explore themes of oppression, violence and recovery from both social and personal abuse.

Dr. Bonner exhibits throughout the Bay Area, and several of her pieces will be shown later this month at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora. Her goal in art, she says, is to “give people an emotional experience that enables them to see that their suffering is connected in some way to a larger political and economic structure. Once we change that structure, factors like diet and physical activity will be easy to deal with.”

In the meantime, her art has changed her attitudes as a physician. “I’m more respectful of patients and of the choices they make, and less angry at the ‘frequent flyers,’ " she says. “I’m often saying things like, ‘You know, this person is probably dealing with a lot more than we know about.’ "