As Precise With a Paintbrush As She Is With a Scalpel
Dr. Kathryn Ko, a neurosurgeon at Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn, has made paintings that show her operating alongside her surgical team and has created a homage to a favorite pneumatic cranial drill. Credit Dave Sanders for The New York Times
By COREY KILGANNON
The NEW YORK TIMES
DEC. 11, 2014
(ED NOTE: Kathyrn has started a “Doctor/Artist” Hangout Channel, at www.ArtOnCall.TV, where she will occasionally do LIVE webcasts, interviewing various MD’s across the globe whe have talents in the arts)
When Dr. Kathryn Ko is not operating on a brain, she is painting one. “It’s the most beautiful thing on earth, hands down,” said Dr. Ko, 59, a neurosurgeon at Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn. “The power, the meaning. It’s what we are. And I get to see it alive.” As a surgeon and a painter, Dr. Ko specializes in the anatomy of the brain and cranium. Her art — whether realistic pieces or the more abstract and conceptual works — springs directly from her 30 years of emergency surgery experience in hospitals in New York City. When a classical trumpeter from a Russian orchestra took a bad fall during a performance in New York in 2010, Dr. Ko performed emergency surgery at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, helping to preserve both his life and his playing career. Afterward, she painted his portrait, complete with the scar across his scalp. And when she was called to a city morgue to examine the skull of an unidentified man found in the Bronx, she wound up painting it.
She has made paintings that show her operating alongside her surgical team and has created a homage to a favorite pneumatic cranial drill. Dr. Ko, who has an acute ear for musical pitch, had noticed that the drill emitted a G sharp when rotating at the proper operating speed. She made a painting of her using the drill and named it “Craniotomy in G Sharp.” Dr. Ko holding a rendering of a human brain executed on plastic packing material over a portrait she painted of a woman close to death titled “Go Gentle.” Credit Dave Sanders for The New York Times “It’s kind of like my career memory books, to freeze the moment for me,”
Dr. Ko, who has a master’s degree in painting from an online university, said of her neurosurgical-inspired art. “I’m trying to represent something that hardly anyone sees, except brain surgeons.” Dr. Ko performs emergency brain and spinal surgery on patients taken to the Kings County emergency room, one of the city’s busiest. Her patients include victims of gunshot wounds, car accidents, strokes and tumors. She often works on call and paints at studios around the city, always keeping her car close by, for urgent responses. “I wish I could be an artist in residence at a hospital, and when there is an emergency, I just put the brush down and go into the O.R.,” she said with a laugh. Parallels between her two pursuits were on display one recent morning in the Kings County neurosurgery office, as Dr. Ko surveyed a scan of a patient’s brain and then pointed to two of her paintings of colorful images based on such scans. Another piece, a print of a brain, hung on her office door near an “Eddie Would Go” bumper sticker, a reference to the Hawaiian surfer Eddie Aikau, who was lost at sea in 1978 while trying to rescue occupants of a canoe that had capsized.
Dr. Ko, who grew up in Oahu, Hawaii, said she had paddled Hawaiian canoes with Mr. Aikau’s family before moving to New York in 1983 to begin her surgical career. Dr. Ko said that Mr. Aikau had been an inspirational figure to her when she was a young surgeon traveling through the city’s rough neighborhoods to do night shifts at different hospitals. Even before she took up painting 10 years ago as a creative outlet, Dr. Ko said, surgery had kindled her appreciation of the brain’s visual beauty — the way its image reflects off a scalpel’s shiny surface, the glistening landscape of its various lobes.
Dr. Ko visiting with Winston Innis, 73, at Kings County Hospital Center on Nov. 7, a day after her colleagues there operated on him.
Credit Dave Sanders for The New York Times
Both her vocation and her avocation, she said, require a skilled hand and talent polished by study and practice, as well as an excellent observational eye. The discipline involved in painting and the study of color and form have helped sharpen her surgical acuity, from spatial skills to the ability to detect subtle differences in hue that can help a surgeon recognize different sections of the brain or spot abnormalities. While noticing the gradations of gray in reading a brain scan is seen as an advanced skill for a medical student, she said, it is “something you learn in the first year of art school.” “The paintbrush is like an additional tool in my medical kit — it’s like the scalpel,” she said, adding that her surgical training had helped improve her art, especially with anatomical painting. Though artists throughout history often studied corpses to learn about anatomy, surgeons’ work with a live body exposes them to living tissue, blood flow and movement, Dr. Ko said. “There’s nothing like looking at a living human brain,” she said. “There’s a life force that’s indescribable. You can see the color change and disappear into little valleys, with veins and arteries pulsing through.” For Dr. Ko, “treatment starts in the hospital and ends on the canvas,” said Isaac Michalowski, whose son, Eric, became her patient after being struck by a van and critically injured while biking near his Brooklyn home in 1995. “She has the ability to tap into both sides of her brain,” Isaac Michalowski said. “It’s like she does these paintings of her patients to keep an association — that’s her closure.”
“Prick,” one of Dr. Ko’s paintings, hangs in a makeshift studio in Manhattan that she uses. She said that both surgery and painting require a skilled hand, observational skills and talent polished by study and practice. Credit Dave Sanders for The New York Times
“Her paintbrush is an extension of her scalpel,” he added. Dr. Ko painted a portrait of Eric, which his father called “an honor.” The painting moved Eric as well, the elder Mr. Michalowski said. Dr. Ali Sadr, chief of neurosurgery at Kings County Hospital, said that Dr. Ko’s experience as an artist had helped put her into “a more advantageous position as a surgeon” by improving her craft in the operating room. “She sort of straddles the connection between art and science,” Dr. Sadr said. Dr. Ko, who occasionally shows and sells her paintings, is currently exhibiting some of her work at Roast Coffee & Tea Trading Company in Patchogue, N.Y., in a show sponsored by the Patchogue Arts Council. At a studio in Manhattan recently, she worked on a watercolor rendering of a skull, and a Pop Art-style outline of a hand holding a scalpel titled “The First Cut Is Everything.” On the walls were numerous paintings of operating room scenes, and other brain-themed illustrations, including a large abstract painting of a brain affected by Parkinson’s disease that Dr. Ko, who is right-handed, had executed with her left hand. There was also a Warhol-style collection of smaller prints of the brain rendered in various bright colors, which she calls “36 Views of Neurosurgery.” Other prints were executed on plastic packing material, a vodka bottle, sheet music, cloth and plywood. Dr. Ko said that long hours at the operating table and the easel left little time for anything else. “Life is short, and if you have two things you’re passionate about, why not do them?” she said. “Why not use as much of your brain as you can while you’re on earth?” ## Reprinted from – December, 12, 2014 – Pages A-26,28. Copyright 2014, The New York Times Company