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Joe's Neighborhood

The artist and the doctor who sits next to his patients

12/23/2015

The door pushes inward to warmth and people and noise. The young men in front of us are momentarily stuck at the entrance. The cold of the outside is fighting to move upstream into the coziness of the inside. But then the young men are in, with us closely following. Andy’s Frame Shop is hosting an art opening. Most folks still have on their coats from the snowy weather. The wet wool smell, the dripping boots and the blast of cold air at the entrance when the door opens all act as small reminders of things to come. But the artist merely shrugs it off. He stands at the door, a half-smile permanently fixed, mildly embarrassed to be the center of attention, and properly greeting each person. Good manners trump the inclination to flee.joes1 12.24

“I’m an introvert. I’m a very happy introvert. But beyond a one-on-one conversation, I am mostly drained.”

Randy Hamilton gives me a small smile. His face gives away nothing of how he’s feeling. No tell. No forecasting. No strange tick with which to attach meaning. Nope, it’s only the eyes. Caring eyes. Soft eyes. Eyes that have seen some things. Eyes to trust. But tonight it’s about the art.

“This art started in 2007 when I took a collage class. Generally, collage is taking one image and another image and putting them close together and feeling a visceral emotion. There is usually a visceral response by me. I’m either laughing or I’m freaked out or creeped out by it. If I’m not too creeped out by it, then I’ll use it. If I’m super creeped out by it, if I’m super disturbed by the juxtaposition, I won’t do it.”

Creeped out? Super disturbed? Do I want to know?

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“One of my favorite games as a kid was the memory game, where you turn over two cards, and when you make the pair you can keep it. So I think my brain holds images for a long time. And I’ll see this and think, ‘Huh, I wonder how this would look next to this?’  And I’ll go find that piece. Meaning starts to form as I make it. I tend to have my own narrative as it develops. There is generally a gender bender thing going on. I don’t know why. The narrative is what is interesting.”

But being an artist is not Hamilton’s only career.

“I wanted to be an architect ever since I was 10.”

So, from 2004 to 2007, Hamilton went to Iowa State seeking a masters of architecture degree.

“It was awesome. I loved the training. I loved the professors. It is a rich subject. I learned how things work, how to design, how to think about design. It changed me.”

Ah, but Hamilton graduated with his masters during the recession. There were no jobs. Architecture firms were not hiring, and they were laying off staff. A grim time.

In any case, Hamilton had already returned to his first job, which was neither architecture nor art. Believe it or not… a doctor.

“My goal after college was to get into medical school. Once I got in, it was like, ‘oh shit, now what.’ I just wanted to get in; I didn’t want to go. I just wanted to be accepted. So my plan changed where I was going to do medical school and, when I’m done and paid off my debts, I’ll go to architecture school.”

But Hamilton found another dream in medicine.

“Neurology was very challenging, and I loved neural anatomy. If there is anything that is going to keep revealing secrets to sustain my interest for my whole lifetime, it’s neurology. It turns out that’s probably true for everything in medicine, but neurology deals with things like, ‘what is consciousness?’ That attracted me.”

And so Hamilton and his partner, Bruce Hughes, are neurologists. Hughes focuses on MS, as the director of the Ruan Neurology Multiple Sclerosis Center at Mercy Medical Center. Down the hall, Hamilton’s interest is movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease and essential tremors, as a physician with Mercy Ruan Neurology Clinic.

“Neurology has a lot of sadness. Especially in the hospital. We diagnose coma and brain death. That tears me up.”

Hamilton pauses.

“I’ve had many patients die. I’ve seen some of these people for 10 years or more. How do I handle it? A few simple things. I write a sympathy card once I find out. I also print out their obituary and their photograph. And I make a document of remembrance. Sometimes I’ll hang it up for awhile. Then I’ll file it. So I keep a memory album in a way.”

Doesn’t this all leave you drained and feeling hopeless?

“As a result of this work, I feel stronger, not more fragile. It helps me live in the moment. Of course, that doesn’t make me not think about death.”

Again, Hamilton stops talking as he thinks about his patients.

“I am close to my patients. I listen, make eye contact and know that they know I hear them. That takes time. I spend twice as much time as the other doctors. But that’s why I get to know them well. I have to hear them in order to understand… I sit next to the patient.”

You sit next to the patient?

“One of the best things that happens to me is when we turn on and program a deep brain stimulator for the first time. A man or woman who has had a horrible high-end tremor where they can’t drink or write, they’ll be able to do both. It’s amazing. It’s heart-rending. We cry in the clinic when that happens. They cry. I cry.

joes2 12.24And then the quiet introverted man, who daily mediates between life and death, must leave to talk to another patron.

I finish my wine, put on my hat, and head back out into the snow. Again, I am stuck at the door and turn one last time into the warmth to see the final juxtaposition, the final collage of the show — the artist and the doctor who sits next to his patients. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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