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Art in the OR

Art in the OR

Assistant Professor of Studio Art Logan Grider recently led 20 Swarthmore students representing a variety of majors to the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute in suburban Washington, D.C. The goal? To draw from observation during a four-hour heart bypass and valve replacement surgery. Students took in the action 12 feet above the operating room table from a glass observation dome - the only one of its kind in the country that is open to the public.

"I had already observed Dr. Edward Lefrak, the surgeon who performed the operation we saw, perform a bypass and was struck by how visually complex the whole operation is," says Grider, who joined the faculty last fall. "So the idea of bringing students had been brewing for awhile. I believe that everyone, regardless of what they are interested in or identify themselves as, can benefit from drawing as an exercise to focus visual awareness."

Here, some of the students who went on the trip share their thoughts - and sketches - from the experience. More photos can be found in this gallery by the Washington Post.


Witnessing a heart stop beating and then defibrillated back to its rhythmic motion was probably the most visceral thing I've ever seen.

Looking and perceiving something in my sight for the purpose of drawing it brings forth a conversation to define that thing in terms of form, tone, texture, spatial relationship, lighting, etc. You see details and relationships that you normally would never notice without the separated but scrutinizing perspective that drawing enables.

As a biology major, the surgery was very interesting and I tried to follow the very complex procedure and recognize the various anatomical parts of the cardiovascular system. But it became much more engaging when I noticed the precision of the surgeons' hands, the color of the organs and blood, and the final result of a beating heart. I'd say drawing hones the visual awareness in any facet of life.

Michael Ahn

Michael Ahn '10
biology and studio art
Cupertino, Calif.

The trip was definitely a challenge for me. The way that the surgeons handle the body is surprisingly forceful. It's also difficult to be so aware of how close to death the man under the drapes is. What was interesting to me was the routine of it. The surgeons and nurses were so practiced, and they do this type of surgery so often, that there was no sense of urgency whatsoever.

I've been telling people that the surgery was really awesome, absolutely horrifying, and just boring all at once. The interesting and horrifying parts are pretty self-explanatory. I got to see the inside of a person - at one point they literally cranked his sternum open, and afterward I saw them sew it shut with metal wire. The boring part was that the surgery took over four hours. So once I had acclimated myself to the gore of it, and once they had done all the work of getting into where the heart was, it moved very slowly.

That's a small part of my experience. I learned a lot about the heart and about the realities of surgery.

Xena Colby

Xena Colby '11
Cambridge, Mass.


I spent more than four hours watching and sketching open heart surgery, but it went by in a flash. The intensity in the operating room was matched by those of us sketching above. I know that we all found different aspects of the surgery interesting, and I was especially interested in all of the equipment required for the procedure. There were what looked like miles of tubing, pumps, monitors with constant updates, and trays of forceps and other tools that I don't know the names for. And it was all used, but for what, I have no idea.

Many of my drawings focused on all of this equipment, but it was impossible to ignore the main event. There was a human heart, visible to my naked eye, out in the open. I don't think I'll ever understand the biology of it all, but I do understand the truly awesomeness of the experience. I will forever be glad that I took this opportunity to go and draw. It was one of the most exhausting few hours I have ever experienced, but worth every minute.

Sara Daley

Sara Daley '10
art history
Drexel Hill, Pa.


Even right before we entered the observation room, I was somewhat nervous and worried. However, the open-heart surgery was neither disgusting nor shocking; it was really interesting. The surgeon and assistants were relaxed rather than nervous; they even listened to music, which made them look more confident and professional. Throughout the surgery, a cardiac nurse helped us understand each step taken.

Besides the operation itself, there were so many intriguing objects to draw from in the room such as computers, tubes, and knives. This experience has changed my views about surgery and made me more interested in drawing human bodies.

Soomin Kim

Soomin Kim '13
Seoul, Republic of Korea


Observing an open-heart surgery at the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute was a unique experience. Drawing from the surgery made me appreciate how intricate the human body is and admire even more the people who dedicate their lives to keeping it healthy.

Serra Kornfilt

Serra Kornfilt '11
computer science
Istanbul, Turkey

a sketch by Christie DeNizio

Above, a sketch by Christie DeNizio '12, a studio art/art history and education major from Branchburg, N.J.

I had a wonderful time at the heart institute. I am very interested in both biology and art and hope to double major, so this trip was exciting for me on both levels. It was such a wonderful opportunity to be able to really see the workings of the human heart, a reassuring transition from the books we studied in biology to the flesh-and-blood circulatory system in front of us.

It was really interesting to talk to the different people involved in different aspects of the surgery and to get a sense of how well this team works to save lives. From an artist's perspective, I could not have asked for a better model to draw. Learning how to synthesize the shapes, colors, and motion of the surgery into a piece of art was really exciting. It was just an amazing collaborative experience to see all of the different drawings that sprung from this one surgery. The whole staff was so wonderful and friendly, and Logan was so encouraging. I'm really grateful to him for taking us here.

Emily Melnick '13
Waterton, Mass.

Mariela Puentes

Mariela Puentes '12 (left) and Logan Grider (standing) watch the operation intently on monitors in the observation room. photo by Debra Troell/Inova Health System

When I first received an e-mail about the trip, I literally gasped with excitement. As the trip got closer, I started to get increasingly nervous as so many questions raced through my mind. Am I going to get queasy at the sight of blood? What if I faint in the middle of the four-hour long procedure?

When the procedure began and the patient was cut open, I could not believe my eyes. I was amazed at how the skin was cut, how the chest cavity was sawed open, and finally there it was - the heart, beating and pulsating. Next thing I know, ice covered the heart and it stopped beating. Witnessing the heart begin to beat once again - breathtaking.

We were told the patient was not expected to outlive the valve, which will last at most 15 years. It made me realize how fragile life is. We all have our "time," but witnessing open-heart surgery makes me appreciate the little things in life more.

Mariela Puentes

Mariela Puentes 12
psychology and education
Pomona, Calif.

Alicia DeWitt

Alicia DeWitt '11 (left), a biology and studio art major from Bolingbroke, Ill., and Robin Collin '11, a biology major with a minor in math from Newark, N.J. photo by Debra Troell/Inova Health System.

As the surgeon takes the scalpel to the man's chest, I wonder, "Could that be me?" about both surgeon and patient. An inch of fat later, I'm reminded of the urgent need to resume a running regimen. The bone saw cuts through the sternum, half of which is then lifted by a crane with forks at the end. Then the real work begins - the carefully pointed cauterizations, then the vessel extraction for the bypass. It's clear that I'll never be this kind of doctor. The work requires unbelievable physical stamina and precision my shaking hands will never have.

They put ice on his heart. It stopped, and two and a half hours later, it was still stopped. The man's body temperature was 90 degrees. He hadn't taken a breath for a quarter of the day. And after he had a pig's valve sewn inside his heart, all the leaks were patched up, and he had a new conduit for the blood that supplied his non-beating heart with oxygen and food, they took a few paddles and shocked his heart a dozen times.

sketch by Michael Ahn

Above, a sketch by Michael Ahn 10.

At first it didn't start at all. Then it would start and quickly fibrillate, losing all rhythm and coordination. Finally, they shocked it and it started to beat - a real, live, miraculously beating heart just minutes after the ice cubes that were sitting on it were removed. They gave the man back his blood, bit by bit, and then took steel guitar strings, threaded them through his sternum, and tied him back together as though they had never cut him apart, chilled him, removed liters of his blood and stopped his heart in the first place. The nurse told us of the WWII vets with tattoos on their chests - one of the hardest parts of the surgery is lining up the feathers of the eagle.

Someone's brother, husband, father, and grandfather was just given as many as 15 more years to live in the four hours I was standing there. I saw into a man's heart without first even looking into his eyes. I walked into Essie Mae's, still struck with wonder. I witnessed a miracle.

Michael Roswell

Michael Roswell '11
biology and linguistics
Baltimore, Md.


"We were able to meet the surgeon and the anesthesiologist," Vo says, "not to mention a couple nurses who were simply curious about the art students who had come to watch the surgery." photo by Debra Troell/Inova Health System.

The heart surgery trip was incredible. Kris Yonish, the cardiac nurse that accompanied us into the surgery dome, was very helpful in narrating all the stages and parts of the surgery, including the roles of all the people in the operating room and the various instruments that were being used. I really enjoyed learning about all the medical technology, from how pig heart valves are harvested to sterilization practices to the heart-lung machine.

It was striking how the patient's medical problems were all clearly visible and concrete during surgery. He needed an aortic valve replacement because it had calcified over the course of his life. When the surgeon reached the aorta and opened up the valve with his instruments, it was very clear how stiff and tough it had become. It made me curious about how I might visualize the biological processes occurring in my own body, and how I might visualize their malfunctions. Unfortunately, it was difficult to sketch this in much detail as the surgeons were working quickly and efficiently. The art students did a much better job of managing the transience of the images, I think.

The experience was invaluable. I'm very glad that Logan Grider organized the trip and opened it up to biology students!

Vy Vo '11
biology and cognitive science
Anaheim, Calif.