Painter and Doctor Uses Art to See the Whole Patient
Dr. Bennett Lorber is the Thomas M. Durant Professor of Medicine and Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. In addition, Dr. Lorber is an accomplished abstract artist whose work has been exhibited in various commercial and public galleries, not to mention throughout the Temple medical campus. Through his art, he has honed his keen skills of observation that he uses in the clinic as an infectious disease physician. He is passionate about teaching and conveys to his students the importance of seeing and understanding the whole person when caring for patients and diagnosing complex cases.
How did you get interested in medicine?
I was always interested in biology. I was fascinated by microscopes as a kid, and I loved looking through microscopes. I still do. My grandfather’s brother, my great uncle, was the first doctor in the family. And he was a very revered figure in the family, a wonderful man with wide ranging interests. He spoke many languages and memorized dozens and dozens of Shakespeare sonnets that he could recite. He collected art and was a very good friend of a lot of artists. And he was just a model of someone who everyone in the family liked and respected, and everybody went to him for advice. And he was a doctor, so I had this idea in my head from the time I was a kid that being a doctor was sort of like being a biologist for people.
In terms of your interest in infectious disease, did that come once you were already in medical school?
I had little to no exposure, really, to infectious diseases in medical school, to be honest. My initial intention was to be a general internist and practice general internal medicine with a group of like-minded folks. My older son developed a very serious illness as I was completing my residency, and I was looking for something to do until he was better. I liked infectious diseases, and I liked the idea of a lot of the things about infectious diseases. It is not organ based. It’s not kidneys all day, or hearts all day, or brains all day. It’s infections in kidneys and hearts and brains and everywhere else. And there are no gadgets! I did a fellowship for a year, but at the end of that fellowship my son was still ill. Temple offered me a job, and I decided to do that for a little while until my son got better. He got better, but I was having such a good time doing infectious diseases that I just kept doing it. I think that served as a good example that it’s important to make plans and to think about your career and a path, but you have to be open to other possibilities if better possibilities present themselves. And you have to have a plan, it’s a mistake not to have a plan, you can’t be completely reactive. But you have to be flexible and see where things take you, and it’s ok to change your mind! People don’t seem to get that idea. You can change your mind over and over again. Give yourself a chance to experience things and see what your gut tells you that you love.
When did you start to get interested in painting, drawing and art?
I grew up in a family in which there were a bunch of professional artists. Art was highly valued and talked about, and people had art in their homes. My father would sit with me and we would look at pictures in art books. We would go to museums, we would talk about art, and we would make art. As a kid, we were not allowed to buy cards for birthday or Valentines, we had to make them. There were always a lot of materials to use, and that was encouraged, it was always just there. So from the time I was quite little, I was making things. Then I had drawing lessons after school, and I just always did it.
How did you manage the interest in biology with the interest in art? Or did they sort of meet in the middle where you saw something that looked like art through the microscope slide?
Well I think you can look through microscopes and see interesting and beautiful things. I sort of never had a choice about this. I can’t imagine not having been a doctor, and I can’t imagine not being a painter. I have a calling to do both, and I am just trying to do both. I never made a decision about it except to spend my professional and money-making life in medicine. Outside of work, my two best friends are two people I met my first week of college who are both psychiatrists. But all of my other best friends are painters, and they don’t think of me as a doctor.
In lecture, you show different pieces of art, both your own and historic pieces that tied together topics we were learning about. Do you find that is helpful in how you teach both in the classroom and also residents on the floor?
Yes, I do. I wrote a paper about this (“Learn to Look and Be a Better Doctor” in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Volume 58, number 4) that just got published in June or July. The paper is about learning how to use your eyes the way an artist learns to use their eyes and see the world and be observant to make you a better doctor. I think as a pedagogical tool, if you are talking for an hour to students who have already had an hour of lecture and have another hour coming, it is helpful pedagogically to break up the talk. […]
One of the things I’ve noticed in my academic career is that somehow we give medical students the impression that if they are not doing medicine all the time that somehow they are cheating. That they are being bad or evil and are cheating the profession. And that is ridiculous. I show art in lecture because it gives people permission to have other aspects to their lives. It gives them permission to do whatever it is they need to do to restore and refresh themselves. Plus, I just sort of think the more you know, the more opportunities there are to engage with patients. […]
I’ll tell you a quick story. I was a medicine attending, and we had a patient who was admitted overnight. I was told by the resident that the patient was extremely hostile and wouldn’t talk. They didn’t know what he was upset about, but he wouldn’t tell them and he wouldn’t talk. We go in the room, and the patient is lying in bed and looks pretty angry, he has his arms clenched across his chest and not making eye contact. He has a little radio next to the bed, and it’s playing classical music. I said “Hello,” and I introduced myself and told him why I was there and so on. No response. I turned to the little team and I said “Does anybody know what this music is?” And nobody knew. I said “this is the second movement of the Beethoven violin concerto.” And I could see the patient light up and that he was a musician. That was the entre into that patient. If I didn’t know what the Beethoven violin concerto was, we never would have had that conversation. You don’t have to know the Beethoven violin concerto, but you get the idea. the more you know the better, but not just about medicine.
I remember when we learned about microbiology how seemingly non-important parts of the history became important. I imagine that is important in your daily practice?
One of the things that is so great about infectious diseases is that we are the fever detectives. That is it, the patient has a fever. So we ask lots of questions, and we ask sort of fun and nosy questions that other doctors don’t ask. We ask about what they eat, what their hobbies are, where they’ve traveled and what their sexual practices are and all kinds of stuff. Very often in answering those questions, you learn something about that person as a person and not just as a problem of fever. And that is just so much more rich in terms of the interaction between patients and doctors. I just find it that much more interesting when you find out something about them.
That’s one of the things that the AIDS epidemic really impacted everybody’s life. In taking care of AIDS patients early in the epidemic, I became the kind of doctor I thought I wanted to be when I came to medical school. I saw people repeatedly, and I learned a really important lesson – that you can be really helpful even when you can’t do anything. Even just listening and being there is a lot for patients. I learned really intimate details about people’s lives, and they shared things with me. The richness of being a doctor is in those interactions.
In lecture you would talk about how you tend to create a lot of your art on your summer vacation, do you find that specific time to be a nice outlet when you can just turn the medical side of your brain off?
People talk a lot about balance, and when I think of balance I think of a fulcrum in the middle and things on either side are balanced so it is horizontal. But this isn’t about balance. You can’t do everything all the time but you can make times for the things that matter. Sometimes you are on a very busy service, and your days are very long and there is no time to think about anything other than medicine. But there are other times where you can make time to paint. Summer for me isn’t about just having extended time to paint but I can make bigger paintings. The way I work is I like to begin and complete a painting in one sitting, and it’s hard to make large paintings, I like to make them outside on my back porch, so the summer works for me when I can start at 8 in the morning and work until 8 at night. It’s great.
It’s doable, it’s not easy. It requires some compromise. You might have to say, look I can’t do everything and not everything all the time. Do I want to watch this TV series that everyone is watching and talking about or do I want to use that time to make paintings or read a book? There is time and you can do it, you just need to decide.