Archive for the ‘Conversations with my Surgeon’ Category


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Joseph Légaré, The Fire in the Saint-Jean Quarter, Seen Looking Westward 1848


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I use to have this toy medical bag when I was a kid. It had a x-ray kit and I’d put the x-ray in and pop it out. Put it in, pop it out. I’d imagine myself helping so many people by giving them x-rays fixing them with my plastic toys. I could fix any problem with an x-ray. Doctor Poulsen was gonna be a great doctor. The more I played, more I imagined. I told myself a story about my patient dying. I pushed the x-ray in, and pop it out slower. I imagined myself coming out to tell the family their loved one had died. I pushed the x-ray back in and pop it out. People die and it’s hard. Put the x-ray back in and a small voice asked, “And what if it was your fault they died?” I stopped. I couldn’t… It wasn’t a fun game anymore to play doctor.

A strange thing happened. A colleague asked me about my art, and I am so use to talking about other people’s work that didn’t realize they meant my work. I went home and thought about their question: ‘whether there is a level of comfort in my work because I use toys.’ (I am paraphrasing and changing the question a wee bit). On the spot I really didn’t have a good answer, because well, no one really asks me about it.

First of all, if you aren’t overly familiar with me I am art historian, artist, machine lover,  who is also victim of medical error. A lot of my recent work has a lot to do with those experiences as a patient. Some of my work attempts to teach patients how to navigate the system like Gynaecologist…what? (Which I really need to finish). Others are critiques and my attempts to understand what happened.


Several reasons. First of all, Surgery 101 uses LEGO to explain medical concepts. When I was dealing with all my health stuff I listened to this blog regularly to educate myself and to re-assure myself that it was possible to get good care. That medicine could be what I thought it was when I was a kid.


I started using LEGO when I made Hysteria: A Surgical Fantasy because I needed a quick stand-in for graphics. Hysteria was made for DMG‘s Feb Fatale 3, it was a rapid prototype which I made in about a month. Then the LEGO surgeon I used stayed in my purse for over a year. I took it with me everywhere. I’d have conversations with it, show it works of art and culture. It stopped me from having endless conversations with an imaginary version of my real medical team. These conversations are documented in the photographic work Conversations with my Surgeon which I haven’t put online yet just put online today. My version of How to explain pictures to a dead hare.

LEGO is very innocent. With LEGO you are given this promise that you can build and shape the world as you see fit. You are the creator and can make the best version of the world. You can be anything. The world can be anything. It’s an ideal world where things don’t go wrong. And when things go wrong you can smash that world and re-make another one. You can fix the mistake. Other worlds you make or follow the instructions are prized and saved.  They go on a shelf to be shown off. Others become pieces of new projects. There’s a bit of recycling, destruction and preciousness to it.


I use LEGO and toys in my medical work because that’s how I thought about medicine. I was really naive and had simplistic idealism that you go to the doctor, you can be honest with them and they help you.  That medicine was like a prized LEGO set, it was something to be built and put on a shelf to be displayed. It was suppose to follow the instructions. But that’s not how it worked out for me. I was (am?) so angry I want to smash the model and re-build it. But I can’t. I still have all the same pieces and I can’t seem to order them in a way that feels safe. I try to understand what happened by building, taking apart, and saving the best models but ultimately I can’t change the system or what happened in the past. I am conflicted because I still have that idealism that I can change the thing. That I could build something better, but the problem is so big, that what I do is as trivial as child playing with a toy pretending to be a doctor.

There’s a conflict between hope and hopelessness, and help and helplessness. Wanting to be useful and practical, but also feeling simplistic and useless. Wanting to believe that yes, I could make a difference and at the same time knowing that I probably won’t. Like a child I want to scream, throw it all against the wall, but I know that won’t be heard or taken seriously either. Instead I’ll be shamed for being emotional or still being upset. “Don’t you know how hard it is for that doctor?” People struggle with the things I tell thDSC01402em. They don’t want to know what can happen. Medicine is complex. The story is complex. People are complicated. If I could tell the story and make people a certain level of uncomfortable but safe maybe more of the story would get through. Not too loud, not too quiet. I make horror stories and jokes about it, because the fiction is easier to consume than the truth of the event or how I felt about it.  I smiled and hell, I even said thank you.

The form makes it easier for me to distance myself from it, at the same time it doesn’t. There’s an attraction and repulsion. I stopped working on Bad Blood, because at the time it was too painful. Now it’s less painful, which is why I am a little more productive.

at the hospitalPart of it is also my own fear. My nephews once told me you can’t be afraid of LEGO because you can take it apart. No matter what happens you can always smash it. It’s just a toy, “it’s not real Di-nana.” I carried around that LEGO surgeon with me for a year and took it with me to ER on my birthday.(It was one of my few good hospital experiences).  I couldn’t talk to a real doctor, but I could talk to that little piece of plastic. I could hold it in my hand like a magical totem. I could take it apart. It wasn’t scary. It was the ideal version of a surgeon. It felt safer to pretend it was the real doctor. To imagine I had control, when control is an illusion.  That the plastic might hear me, when the person back then didn’t. To make the story less scary for me, but to also bend and twist something that shouldn’t know such dark secrets.

Lastly, my own belief about how the doctors/staff/etc who hurt me perceive me. Medicine is very paternalistic. I am a child to them. I am to be told what to do. I don’t get a say in my body, because they apparently know better. I am LEGO to doctors. Doctors can take me apart. They can take me apart without consequence. They can take me apart without my consent. They can lose and append my instructions. It doesn’t mean that all doctors do,  but sometimes I want to be reminded of when I blindly believed in good care and before someone went on my shelf, pushed all my LEGO sets off and scattered the pieces everywhere. It doesn’t mean the mess can’t be cleaned up, I found a lot of pieces with the help of a nurse, friends and family, but I don’t want to leave models out for people to break them again.





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