More Than Just a Patient

David Hockney is an English artist whose career gained traction in the late 1960s. Perhaps you’ve heard of him or are even familiar with his work – his most famous portrait, Pool with Two Figures, sold for $90 million dollars in 2018. If you’re someone like me, I had no idea who David Hockney was until I learned about him in a college art class. Prior to 2018, if you had asked me who David Hockney was my response would have been something along the lines of “Hockey? Like the game?”. But one day, in an undergraduate art class, I was presented with Hockney’s work and was simply blown away. This SCOPES piece is a tip of the hat (or should I say a tilt of the stethoscope?) to Hockney’s Pearblossom Hwy., a photo collage with a cubistic style.


Astute eyes will notice that this SCOPES piece, like Pearblossom Hwy., is also a photo collage. The subject of this piece is a patient that is very near and dear to my heart: my grandfather. My grandfather passed away this November, right before Thanksgiving. Because of COVID-19, I could not travel home and say goodbye, nor was I able to be with my family. Standing on the periphery as the eye of a great storm swept over my family, all I could really do was sit and listen. The catharsis of speech then, of simply reminiscing about who my grandfather had been, became our way of healing despite the long distance.


Like Pearblossom Hwy., my memories of my grandfather are sometimes sharp and in focus: picture a two- minute movie reel. Other times, memories of my grandfather are more staccato: a flash of a smile, a laugh, the smell of a sweater. In these instances, there’s no reel that plays, just glimpses of a person; smoke tendrils from a flame that has already gone out. So why did I choose to make my grandfather the subject of this piece? It is because though my grandfather was very sick and had a laundry list of medications, specialists, and appointments, he was more than just a patient. He was a son. He was a brother. He was a husband. He was a father. He was a stepfather. He was a grandfather. He was a great-grandfather. His life was complicated at times – I daresay a little messy – like most of ours. He had his likes and dislikes: a total introvert, he enjoyed reading, fixing up old cars, and befriending all the neighborhood strays. Though a bit crotchety around new people, animals surprisingly approached my grandfather like he was Snow White. Perhaps they correctly sensed that somewhere beneath his hard exterior, there was a kind and gentle spirit.


As future physicians, we must cherish the opportunity we have to take a step into our patient’s lives. Though it is tempting to focus on the patient in the moment, we must learn to see past the hospital gown and beeping monitors. Like the subject of this piece, our patients have lived rich lives leading up to their encounters with us and will continue to do so long after we depart. You have the power to make a positive impact on another person’s life and their loved ones. I encourage you to find out what’s important to them, whether it’s taking the dog for a walk or being able to work in their garage. Do not place their quality of life on the back-burner. It only takes a little time to learn about the lives of your patients, but it can make all the difference. I know for my grandfather it did. Together we can redefine the doctor-patient relationship as one person helping another.

This work consists of two pieces: a photo collage and an essay. The subject of this work is a patient who is very near and dear to my heart: my grandfather. Titled “More Than Just a Patient” this work explores the idea that when providers interact with patients in the hospital, they are seeing just a snapshot of a person’s life. Though it is tempting for a provider to focus purely on the illness timeline (i.e. When did this start? How long have you been experiencing X,Y,Z?), this can lead to overlooking who the patient really is. The purpose of this piece is to encourage the viewer to ponder the amazing opportunity we have to touch the web of another person’s life and how our actions – good or bad – can influence the quality of their life even after they leave the hospital.

About the Artist: Danielle Burner

I am a second year MD-PhD student here at Duke. I chose to participate in SCOPES because I enjoy medicine and art, and was excited to find an activity that blended the two. This piece is dedicated to my grandfather, Robert Horn, who passed away in November 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was not able to travel home during his passing to say goodbye. This piece is my way of celebrating his life and commemorating his spirit.