Art as Escape: The Dual Life of a Patient and Resident Doctor
Dr. Anita Raj is far from your traditional doctor-in-training. Born and raised in Brossard, a suburban town south of Montreal, Dr. Raj was diagnosed with craniopharyngioma at a young age and began folding origami as a distraction from the countless doctor appointments, surgeries, and medical complications implicated in her diagnosis. Growing up with unique and intimate insight into the patient experience inspired her not only to become a doctor herself, but also to share her artistic outlet with others. As a current first-year family medicine resident at McGill, an artist, and healthcare provider, Dr. Raj continues to contribute to her community in novel and transformative ways.
As an artist on the path to becoming a physician, I was particularly intrigued by Anita’s unconventional path in medicine and the influential role origami has played in her journey thus far. I reached out to her to continue the conversation and gain more insight into her extensive experiences as a patient as well as her long-time passion for origami and how making art influences her medical education and residency to this day.
IC: Before you became a doctor, you were a patient. Can you tell me more about this journey growing up?
Dr. Raj: When I was six years old, I started having headaches, double vision, nausea, and vomiting. My parents took me to the Montreal Children’s Hospital. It took quite a while for the doctors to figure out what was going on, but they eventually figured out that I had a brain tumor. Everything happened pretty quickly after that. They took really good care of me, so it wasn’t too long before I was scheduled for two surgeries. I had one surgery to put a shunt in, and four days later, I had the eleven-hour long surgery to remove the tumor. Recovery after that was a long process. I have to take medications and supplemental hormones for the rest of my life because of my pituitary. I continued to get regular MRIs and eye check-ups I would see the endocrinologist regularly, so there was lots and lots of follow up.
Two years later, one of the MRIs showed that the brain tumor came back, so they decided they would do radiation therapy instead to get rid of it. So that, interestingly enough, was done at the adult hospital in Montreal, the Montreal General Hospital. I was the only kid sitting in the waiting room for adult radiation therapy. And that took about a month of therapy.
When I was in Grade 10 of high school, during my mid-year exams, I started having these weird headaches. Through a bunch of tests, they found that my shunt was blocked. They ended up replacing it and doing another surgery.
Since then, I have been diagnosed with other things, like migraines, IBS, allergies, and sleep apnea. I also get tired more than other people my age. I used to run around with kids and be super active and play at lunch time, but since I got sick, after the surgery, I became more isolated just because I didn’t have the energy to play with all the other kids. Growing up, going outside or doing extracurriculars and all sorts of socializing activities was difficult for me; they took so much energy. For example, going out to go shopping with friends only four blocks away was like, “I’m sorry I can’t because I know I won’t be able to go there.”
IC: This naturally leads to our next hot topic for discussion: your origami. Tell me more about this and what drew you to origami in particular.
Dr. Raj: I got interested in origami as a kid. When I was younger, my brother used to actually fold with me. We used to get books from the library, and I would ask him for help. And somewhere along the way, I saw a little girl folding paper stars—they are called lucky stars. They are little stars folded out of strips of paper. They really intrigued me in elementary school, so I started to fold them because she showed me how. At one point, she also started to fold these stars out of straw as well, but she wouldn’t tell me how she made them.
I ended up going to Montreal’s Chinatown, looking for straw and instructions on how to do them. I went on this whole quest to find out. I finally did, and in that whole process, I found other sorts of origami that I also tried to fold. I started off folding these modular origamis. Basically you fold a bunch of little triangles and you assemble them to make shapes, like swans or peacocks. I also got into basic modular and geometric origami at this point. Later, I started discovering more complex origami, more complex forms that were folded from one sheet of paper. I started to get more into that and other geometric forms. I also started to get different kinds of paper.
Throughout elementary school and high school, it became something I could do when I was alone. And I was often alone at lunch time and in my free time. It was something to distract me from all the hospital appointments and medical complications and pain. It has continued to serve that purpose until now, essentially. I think pretty much the whole way through, it has been an integral part of my life. It’s one of the things that keeps me going.
IC: Has this led to an interest in sharing your art or dabbling in other artistic mediums?
Dr. Raj: It has been origami up until recently. I sort of developed the art form in terms of finding new papers and techniques, such as wet folding, which is when you moisten the paper with water so that you can shape it in a smoother way. I also started to teach people. Before I got into med school, I was volunteering at the Children’s Hospital where I grew up. I would go and fold with some of the kids while I was volunteering, so that was really nice. I also volunteered and folded at different events, like the Brain Tumor Foundation’s fundraising walk. More recently, I’ve attended groups and shared my love for origami with women who are battling cancer.
One to two years ago, I somehow got into painting by going to local Michael’s painting classes. It was strange for me because I remember in elementary school I had the choice between music, art, and drama classes, and I always chose music. I liked origami, but I was so close-minded that I thought painting wasn’t worthwhile!
A couple years ago, something clicked and I said, “I want to try this.” I took some classes in acrylic painting, and then I thought that was too difficult, so I got into oil painting and now I guess I am flip-flopping between the two to learn new techniques.
IC: Does origami and painting share something in common for you?
Dr. Raj: They both help distract me from my residency life and work in general. The process of creating something is just so rewarding, relaxing, and gives me a sense of accomplishment.
IC: Have you found that this passion for making art is common in the medical school / residency community?
Dr. Raj: I actually now know two people who do origami while attending med school, so I get to chat with them, which is nice. This year, I’m working with a club called McGill Humanities and Arts in Medicine. It was initially founded by four students in my class three or four years ago and was only focused on the humanities, so I was like, “Hey, why don’t we try to get some art in here.” Eventually we ended up arranging an exhibit at a hospital known as The Glen, where we exhibited works of patients, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, so pretty much anyone involved in healthcare. We called it “Journeys through Health”.
Recently I also published a magazine with works from medical students and students in other health professions as well. It was basically a magazine to showcase their art and writing and how these affect their life, whether it be pieces that distract them from their life as a medical student or help them to reflect on their life. We had a bit of both. I wanted them to have a voice. There were other universities in Canada who had a similar concept going, but we hadn’t had anything like that.
IC: How do you see art influencing your role as a doctor? Do you think this has changed how you navigate a clinical encounter?
Dr. Raj: It’s a bit difficult to answer because medically, I have been through so much that not a lot of people or medical students have been through. I know what it is like to go through so many surgeries, MRIs, shunt caps; I know what it is like to go through tests, to take so many medications and forget them. It gives you a different perspective. But if I had to think of the role art plays in this, I would say that it makes me more open, non-judgemental and understanding of how people cope. Someone else might be surprised, but I would understand how and why patients cope through non-pharmacological methods such as art. We are always taught to find non-pharmacological methods and then move onto pharmacological tools. For example, if you see a psychiatric patient you might recommend a self-therapy book for them to read. It brings new ideas to your mind in general.
IC: Are there any other exciting projects or events happening that you would like to share with us?
Dr. Raj: I actually created my own origami models and got them published in different places, such as a book collection published by the British Origami Society and online and print publications of Origami USA. So that is something I am working on—creating my own forms.
There are also origami conventions and exhibitions. I also recently got into an exhibition. It’s a goal to go to a convention one day, but because of my health and med school, I haven’t found the time to go. But eventually! They recently had an exhibition in Quebec City, where they got works from all over the world. They saw some of my folds and asked for some of them. So I recently got my work displayed at this really nice exhibit, which I am hoping to post photos of on the Facebook page I am creating.
One of the things that has me super excited brings me back to where Istarted. The Children’s Hospital recently moved to a new building, where they now have these display cases built into the walls. I got to know the curator at The Glen, and she asked me if I wanted to decorate the display cases with my origami, according to different themes for the kids. They are mostly in waiting areas, and we are creating little scenes and themes for the kids to look at, like underwater themes, the tortoise and the hare, and a penguin and ice theme. I’m happy and nostalgic about this incredible opportunity to decorate the place where I grew up.
IC: And your paintings?
Dr. Raj: I am also submitting my paintings, including two that I will submit to an annual exhibit at the local city hall! I am working on some for YouTube tutorials as well.
I also completed an oil painting for a medical museum at McGill. The museum has different specimens collected over decades, many of which were collected without consent from people who passed away. They have an incredible assortment, from congenital anomalies and fetuses to specimens from every part of the body that you don’t think of. It’s a growing museum at McGill, and the curator, who is a pathologist, asked me if I could create something to commemorate the museum and all these people who had, in a sense, donated their body parts to the museum—although technically they were taken from them. So I was asked to make a painting for the museum acknowledging this so that is hanging up right now. It’s a huge oil painting, 30 x 40 inches. I think it acknowledges how much we appreciate that we are able to see these things that not everyone actually has the access to see.
Dr. Raj: Given everything that I do art-wise, the most important thing would be to continue doing things that you like, activities that you enjoy doing because those are the things that are going to keep you going during medical school, residency or any other healthcare program you might be in. The stress of it is immense and dealing with patients can often affect you in different ways, and it’s really important to have an outlet, whether to reflect on things that have happened or distract you from those things.