Kyle A. Smith, MD
Neurosurgical Resident, University of Kansas Medical Center
Kansas City, KS
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” – Mark Twain
The practice of medicine, especially in this era of reform, consolidation, and an increased focus on economic efficiency, can become dreary work. Patients, administrators, colleagues and family can all weigh on a physician and suck the joy from the duties we must perform each day. Unfortunately, many physicians yield to these pressures and reduce their work to the bare minimum, performing tasks in as mechanistic a way as an automaton. Many of these physicians eventually succumb to the rising tide of burnout in the medical profession. By contrast, those who maintain their joy in medicine usually do so by cultivating other passions in their life, whether a philanthropy, a hobby or personal connections with friends, patients and family. It was Galen, in ancient Roman times, who spoke of the art of medicine, which connotes passion, imagination and inspiration. In some cases, a physician finds a way to blend their passion with their practice. Kathryn Ko, MD, MFA, FAANS, is an example of such an individual.
Dr. Kathryn Ko is a neurosurgeon at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, NY and is a master of the art of medicine. Whether wielding a scalpel or a paintbrush, she does her work with the skill and vision of an artist. Dr. Ko grew up in Oahu, Hawaii and moved to New York in 1983 to pursue neurosurgery. She graduated from Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City and ended up staying after residency, mainly due to her exposure to the arts in New York City and her drive to explore art herself. Her early experience with writing and holography primed her drive for artistic expression, and she then (over 10 years ago) took up painting. Although she began with evening painting classes, she progressed into completing a Masters of Fine Arts from the Academy of Art University in Representational Painting and Drawing. Some of her early artist inspirations included Caravaggio and Andy Warhol. These artists introduced to her the perception of light and shadows and exposed her to various media types. Currently, Dr. Ko is most interested in medical subjects and multimedia such as short videos and medical cartoons with her colleague, Chloe Lee (together, “The HaBluds”). She and her many forms of artwork are visible on her Instagram account “doc_ambidexter” and her personal website.
For Dr. Ko, art is co-existent with neurosurgery: neurosurgery provides her inspiration and material for her paintbrush, and art drives her passion for the beauty of the brain. She has noted that neurosurgical skills provide her the detail, analysis and three-dimensional reconstruction in art, and artistic skills provide her vision and creativity to solve problems in neurosurgery.
Dr. Ko’s art has not only been a creative outlet for her through the years, but has also provided a unique way to help patients and educate people on the work that neurosurgeons do. Her art exhibits have been profiled by national news outlets. She has a popular YouTube video series called “Art on Call” (one episode focused a musician’s recovery process from a traumatic brain injury). She also created a movie focused on a patient with a spinal cord injury with the goal of raising money for the family to provide for the patient’s long-term care.
We salute Kathryn Ko and her prolific work in the arts, which inspires each of us to pursue our passions for our growth as people and for the sake of our patients.