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An Ambidextrous Neurosurgeon Balances Medicine and Visual Art

Dr. Kathryn Ko is an ambidextrous neurosurgeon and artist from New York City. She did her medical training from Mount Sinai Hospital, and in 2012, completed a Masters in Fine Arts degree from the Academy of Art University in Representational Painting and Drawing.

HB: How did you find yourself at the intersection of art and medicine?

Dr. Ko: I was actually a writer as a pre-teen, and continued writing through residency. I then started weekly night classes for drawing, but wasn’t very good at it. I became frustrated and decided that either I had to get better, or move on. That’s how I found myself pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts. It has been a lot of fun. The intersection has enriched both my medical and art careers. And having a degree has made my art more legitimate and acceptable to other art professionals.

HB: Do you think you always had a knack for art?

Dr. Ko: I believe my skill in drawing came from my formal art training. Painting is very complicated. You have to know the optics behind it to make your paintings come to life. You have to understand the visible spectrum. I didn’t know if I would ever get good at it, and that’s something I want people to take from my story. You don’t know what potential you have until you try. You can go through life thinking that you will try something new when you’re older, and have more time, or you can start making time to take up new challenges and surprise yourself by what you’re capable of.

HB: How does being ambidextrous fit into your story?

Dr. Ko: I was born right-handed, but taught myself to be ambidextrous. I am a very kinetic learner, which is most likely why I got into surgery as opposed to a more sit-down kind of medical specialty.

As a medical student, I wasn’t able to concentrate during lectures. My mind would wander, and so to keep myself alert, I started using my left hand to take notes. That’s how I started using my left hand, but it took me years to get comfortable using it. My dominant hand for surgeries is still my right hand, but the primary reason for that is that most surgical instruments are right-handed.

Becoming ambidextrous has been very beneficial, and I encourage other people to do so. It makes your mind more alert and flexible, since you’re teaching it such a fundamental skill. It also reduces the burden off one side of your body.

HB: What types of art do you pursue?

Dr. Ko: I paint, which is a huge time commitment. They can take half a year, depending on their size and which hand I’m using. I also work with a friend (@_deathcabforchloe) on cartooning, a lot of which is related to women in medicine.  Cartooning is my medium for humor.

Other than that, I also write for an online journal, where I have a department called Neurosurgeon Studio.” I also do a lot of medical videos, pertaining to topics in neurosurgery such as surgical techniques with a medical student from Tokyo (@med_school_radio).

HB: Where does the inspiration for your pieces and their titles come from?

Dr. Ko: A lot of my art is based on medical scenes, generally based on montages or impressions. One piece was based on a young patient, Eric, whose family I grew very close to over the years.

The titles come naturally to me, perhaps because of my background in writing. For example, I made a self-portrait called Craniotopy and Gsharp, because the drill emits a sound that is G sharp.

HB: How do you find time to manage and balance both your professions?

Dr. Ko: Neurosurgery takes priority over art. That’s why I did not pursue an art degree until my medical career was well established. Every painting is a huge time commitment and I don’t want a situation to arise where I’m knee deep in a painting, but then have to discard it. That’s why cartooning can be more fun. It’s quicker, and I don’t have to think it over before starting it. Lack of time is also why I use social media (Instagram: doc_ambidexter) to promote my art and what it represents rather than via galleries.

HB: How has your experience changed your overall approach to things?

Dr. Ko: I’ve learned that if you are interested in something, you should give it a shot. It doesn’t matter if you fail.  You should try to accrue a mass of knowledge on the topic, and explore your potential in it.