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A Boundless Desire For Knowledge

A Conversation with Olivia Park (MS3), PRIME-US and Masters of Public Health Program Student

In addition to this year’s graduating class, students at all stages of their medical training at UCSF find ways to incorporate art into their experience in medicine, whether to enhance their learning, find perspective and balance, or foster deeper relationships with patients and colleagues. One of these is Olivia Park, a third-year medical student in the PRIME-US program. Before starting medical school at UCSF, Park trained and practiced as a visual artist for ten years.

Olivia park

Can you describe your work as an artist before medical school?

I used to do visual art, mostly works on paper and site-specific installations. My art investigated time, memory, and death: realities shared by all humans, but which elude absolute definition. In an attempt to express these often dismissed or silent moments, I urged viewers to question, to wonder, and to see mundane experiences in a novel way. Similarly, I found meaning in the attempt to make visible, to make tolerable, to communicate the moments in our bodies that are often invisible or silent.

How does your training as a visual artist inform your future practice as a doctor?

Creating art has been a continually investigative process that demands a boundless desire for knowledge—a capacity necessary to practice medicine. Training and working as an artist for ten years also taught me to embrace the reality that many of our most pressing questions may lack absolute answers. This, combined with the ability to find meaning in moments of tragedy and discomfort, has helped me maintain composure and focus in medical situations when there were no immediate or even long-term resolution. It has also helped me to create more effective treatment plans for patients.

I’ve heard many students say that their year on the wards is demanding; it presents many new challenges compared to the first portion of medical school. What role did art play for you during your clinical rotations?

Third year is another life transition and culture shock. There’s a lot of preparation for how to deal with death or with people not getting better. And of course, death is tragic, but I think within all the tragedy, to be able to pick out the strengths in your patients and find the small bits of beauty, I feel like I’m able to do that because of my work and my background. It makes everything richer and easier.

On the wards at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and at the VA Hospital, it’s difficult to treat people who are really sick, but also people who have had difficult life experiences, and experiences outside their control. I cried every day because I felt like what I was doing was so ineffective in the grander scheme of these patients’ lives. But then I thought about the work I used to do, and found ways to see people’s resilience and strength. It was a perspective shift.

Average Death

It sounds like you have found ways to continue using your art training in very tangible ways!

Yes, I guess that’s true. I’ve been pretty involved in White Coats for Black Lives and the Do No Harm Coalition while at UCSF—so whenever there’s been a need for visual media, like designing the white coats for black lives pins, that’s a tangible way I’ve put my training to use.

Also, in my first year I led a youth development program, working with students from communities disproportionately burdened by poverty and gun violence. There were weekly workshops and student led projects. And these high school students wanted to do art-related things. I organized an art show for the kids that they curated. Because of my connections to the arts community, we were able to have a legitimate, fancy art opening on Valencia. This is knowledge that not every medical student has. I was grateful that I was able to have that experience with the high school students.

Deafening Thought

Other than making art in the way you used to, are there other ways in which your identity as an artist still informs your life in medicine now?

I don’t feel that art has left me or that I’ve left art. I don’t feel a sense of loss. I still think about it all the time. It’s like I’ve been trained to see the world a certain way, and this perspective continually informs the way I approach medicine. Even on a surgery rotation, for example, I find myself applying my medical training and visualizing how I can turn learning experiences or interactions with patients into works of art.

How do you hope to incorporate art into your future work?

I still struggle with this. I see a constant conflict about where art fits into a grander scheme of human needs and wellbeing. Many of our patients do not have even the most fundamental human rights fulfilled: access to food, shelter and healthcare. I struggle with where art fits in to this diorama of basic needs. A lot of the time, it doesn’t. But I think that physicians and social workers can bring art to enhance those things. Art comes after all those basic needs are met. And that’s humbling to think about.