Leaning into Ambiguity

Meharrian Maya Ricketts' Stanford-HBMC Perspective on Art and Medicine and How They Intersect

Maya Ricketts, Medical Student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN

My name is Maya Ricketts, and I am a second-year student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN. I immigrated to the United States in 2015 from Kingston, Jamaica as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University. I knew coming to America was the right path for me. I could learn how to treat diverse communities in medical practice outside of what I experienced in Jamaica, while pursuing education at a liberal arts school. This combination did just that, exposing me to non-traditional medical fields of interest and allowing me to develop a perspective that will help me become a more well-versed physician. Although I knew this opportunity was optimal, I still experienced my fair share of cultural 'shocks,' including moments where I simply felt like I did not belong, based on cultural differences. In those times, I questioned if it had been a mistake to take on this promising, educational opportunity;  it sometimes felt like I was trapped in ambiguity between my Carribean individuality and connecting with the people around me in the States. But I have concluded that my summer  at Stanford has aided in my journey to lessen the ambiguity that I've felt, caught between two worlds.   

Currently, I am a visiting scholar in the Stanford-HBMC summer mentorship program. I am working with Dr. Donna Zulman, Dr. Megha Shankar, and the Stanford PRESENCE team on the PRESENCE 5 for Racial Justice (P5RJ) in Pediatrics project. The aim of this research is to identify evidence-based techniques for clinicians to foster more meaningful clinician-patient relationships and promote health equity for Black pediatric patients. At the core of the PRESENCE 5 framework is advocacy, compassion, and  connection building.

Along with conducting research, I have the opportunity as a visiting scholar to partake in other campus activities. One of the most memorable events I’ve attended thus far was visiting the Cantor Art Museum with Dr. Lars Osterberg. This guided tour was intriguing because I saw art and medicine, two worlds I held to be completely separate, combined. To me, art represents freedom and fluidity while medicine often focuses on facts. This was an opportunity for me to see how clinicians, like Dr. Osterberg, can marry the two.

Internment Camp by Roger Shimomura

The first piece we examined was the “Internment Camp”, a political work by Roger Shimomura. The art was beautiful, the woman dressed in elegant clothing mixed with the neon red in the background offered a look I had not seen before. An Asian woman is standing on a red ground in front of what appears to be a camp, and although she is captivatingly stylish, I couldn’t help but notice her background as she floats on a shocking blood-like red surface. One of my peers noted that she may be dressed for a funeral and the red is symbolic of blood. Another noted she may have escaped from the camp and the devastation it left behind. 

There is no doubt that the red ‘stains’ the picture. Given the historical context, Shimomura uses this piece to comment on race relations in the United States, specifically during the mid-1900’s, when people of Japanese ancestry were forcibly relocated into internment camps, and today, with its residual effects . 

I felt connected to, and hailed by, this piece. As an Afro-Caribbean woman who immigrated here for educational opportunities, I’ve seen history direct my present experiences as a Black person in the United States. I thought even further about my work as a current researcher and aspiring physician. Every patient comes in with a unique cultural background, beliefs, and challenges, and we, as clinicians, are well-positioned to acknowledge, celebrate, and advocate for them beyond their clinical presentation. In such a captivating piece, I believe Shimomura challenges us to see beyond the beautiful woman in the foreground and consider the backdrop, i.e. the past, while still acknowledging her resilience.

For the next piece, we saw Gordon Park’s “Emerging Man” [pictured below]. The black and white photograph was fascinating because it toyed with uncertainty while still maintaining its message. Set during the mid-1900s Harlem demonstrations where Black residents of New York protested police brutality, the picture shows a man emerging from a manhole during what seems to be the aftermath. 

The protests sometimes became violent, and for the man in the photo, they became inescapable, pushing him into the manhole. Simultaneously, though, when he emerges, there is a power shift. His emergence was symbolic of the movement’s resilience, courage, and hope for justice. I was struck by the measure of emotions captivated in the man’s fixed gaze, with only his eyes and nose shown. The level of distress and fear in his eyes is undeniable, but I felt I didn’t have the full story, seeing only half of his face. 

The questions I had about this piece evolved from “What is he feeling?” to “What do I do with uncertainty?” In a time where our identities are covered by masks, we’ve had to grapple with, and embrace, a familiar, yet unsettling sense of ambiguity throughout the pandemic. As an artist would, I thought about how my peers and I spent an extra fifteen minutes leaning into the ambiguity of this piece and working through the various dimensions together instead of walking away in frustration. It’s imperative for us, as future care providers, to build strong connections with our patient populations and amongst ourselves, by avoiding assumptions, facing our curiosities, and gently but persistently inquiring, because empathy and compassion are felt through questions, not answers.

Emerging Man by Gordon Park

My initial curiosity set the stage for continuous contemplation and discussion of the role of art, and many other fields, in medicine. I reflected on how, like the woman in Shimomura’s piece, we future clinicians should examine our patients beyond their symptoms. Their living environment, support systems, and socioeconomic status are altogether essential in not only developing a diagnosis but prioritizing their needs. When the time inevitably comes (again and again) and I don’t have an answer, like with Parks’ piece, I’ll lean into ambiguity, seeing it as an opportunity for collaboration with my peers and patients, rather than a roadblock in my career.  

To my peers, as growing future clinicians, I cannot stress enough the importance of becoming familiar with the multiple aspects of medicine. My visit to the Cantor Art Museum inspired me to mold differing worlds that I am passionate about rather than compartmentalize them. I am now ready to embrace the multifaceted nature of medicine by thinking creatively about the fields I can incorporate into my future practice.

Maya Ricketts and members of the Summer 2022 Stanford HBMC Cohort attend the farewell BBQ on Stanford campus