Jennifer Hunter uses art to express herself and identity with the world. It's a tool that helps her process information and release emotion. It's also the way she earns a living.
Just over two years ago, Jennifer's artistic ability was in jeopardy. She experienced pain and numbness triggered by a combination of problems: deterioration and compression of one of the discs in her neck, bone spurs compressing her spine, and thoracic outlet syndrome. The discomfort became so severe she could no longer hold a paintbrush to canvas.
But Jennifer's physical symptoms were only part of her dilemma. She held a deep-seated fear of surgery. Her distress about invasive medical intervention was rooted in childhood memories of procedures where she was given little or no explanation of what was happening and why.
"I became the kid who passed out at the dentist's or doctor's [office]," she says.
Jennifer's neck problems stemmed from a car accident where she suffered whiplash. By 2000, she had a bulging disc in her spine due to the injury. She managed persistent neck and shoulder pain for nearly two decades with physical therapy and regular exercise. But in 2015, when her pain intensified and began radiating through her body and into her legs, Jennifer sought the advice of a surgeon.
"I had a choice: Face my fear or be disabled," she says.
For almost a year, Jennifer looked for someone to treat her. But none of the five specialists she saw could offer her a surgical solution.
"I needed to be seen someplace that understood thoracic outlet syndrome, so I looked at Mayo Clinic because they treat it," Jennifer says. "I looked for a surgeon who understood cervical [disc] issues and spinal deformities."
Jennifer's research led her to Jeremy Fogelson, M.D., in Mayo Clinic's Department of Neurosurgery. In Dr. Fogelson, Jennifer found a surgeon who not only saw the benefit of a surgical treatment for her spinal compression, but a physician whose understanding and kindness kindled courage within Jennifer that helped her overcome her anxiety about surgery.
From Jennifer's first appointment with Dr. Fogelson in August 2016, art was an important component of her care.
"My art is kind of my identity," Jennifer says. "It's my response to the world and how I see things."
Jennifer came into the meeting with one of her paintings to show Dr. Fogelson. "I said, 'I need to hold my arm out to be able to do this,'" she recalls. "I really thought I would have to work hard to convince him to treat me, but he offered me surgery right off the bat."
During the lengthy appointment, Dr. Fogelson listened as Jennifer explained her symptoms and situation. He also discussed the nature of the surgery that would restore her painting ability, and he answered questions about the treatment.
"I'm a person who'd been really scared of surgeons and spine surgery, but his personality — he was so down-to-earth and so kind and compassionate — put me right at ease," Jennifer says.
Dr. Fogelson says his position at Mayo Clinic helps inspire trust in his patients.
"Having a lot of experience and a lot of colleagues with great medical knowledge and expertise, whose recommendations I can trust, allows me to have confidence when I'm meeting with patients and reviewing what I think is going to help them," Dr. Fogelson explains.
For Jennifer to feel positive about the surgery and its outcome, she knew she would need to integrate art into the process. At the appointment, she told Dr. Fogelson about her fear of surgery. She said she wanted to be able to sketch him in order to trust him to operate on her spine.
"Drawing sketches played a big part of me facing my fears and my recovery," Jennifer says.
When Jennifer first presented Dr. Fogelson with the idea of sketching and later painting him, he was hesitant but then agreed. Although the request was beyond the normal scope of duty, he understood that some patients require additional support, and it was within his capacity as a Mayo Clinic physician to grant her request.
"I did feel like doing these things for her would help her deal with the situation and help her feel comfortable, even though it was not really a standard practice," Dr. Fogelson says. "At Mayo, we do our best to stick to our primary value, 'The needs of the patient come first,' and every patient has different needs."
In the weeks leading up to her surgery in November 2016, Jennifer turned photos she'd taken of Dr. Fogelson into sketches. When she returned to Mayo Clinic for the surgery, she thanked Dr. Fogelson for allowing her to sketch him during the previous weeks.
"I had to get my head to a place where all of it was going to be OK, and it was. The day of the surgery, I was fine," Jennifer says. "I held his hand and looked him in his eyes and thanked him for helping me. I told him that his hands were saving my hands."
During the diskectomy and spinal fusion, Dr. Fogelson removed what remained of Jennifer's faulty disc, replaced it with cadaver bone, and fused together the two neighboring vertebrae. Because Jennifer opted to forgo metal pins with the fusion, she had to wear a neck brace for three months.
After Jennifer healed, she began to work on Dr. Fogelson's watercolor portrait. The pain that had accompanied her for more than two decades was gone. It had been more than 18 months since she'd been able to paint, but the project kept her motivated.
"The painting of him was the first painting I'd done since he operated on me," says Jennifer. "I was very inspired. I rested when I needed to rest, but the painting is at the level I expect of myself."
Some days she worked just a few hours. Some days it was more. But every moment Jennifer spent on the painting was imbued with recovery.
"Everything is in that painting: overcoming this fear, his compassion and kindness," says Jennifer, adding that it took her 3½ weeks to complete the work. "It means so much for me to be able to do that for him because he gave me my life back, and without him I wouldn't be able to do my work."
Jennifer's condition doesn't require regular follow-up appointments. But two years after her surgery, she returned to Mayo Clinic to present Dr. Fogelson with the painting.
"I don't really like to look at myself, but I love it," Dr. Fogelson says. "It's really beautiful, and I think she did a wonderful job. She clearly put so much into it. The detail is incredible."
Jennifer says the painting depicts the healing atmosphere that pervades Mayo Clinic.
"The medicine at Mayo is an art, and art is also medicine," Jennifer says. "Everything in that experience — the compassion and the caring and the personal contact — all of that leads to healing. I knew I could trust my life with him, and that's something you have to have when you get on the operating table."