about us


recommend this article to a friend







by Kirsty O'Connor


I've always had a lot of trouble with the medical profession. As a child with an unusual condition, I went on twice yearly trips to St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London to see eminent surgeon Sir Somebody-or-Other and be prodded by his pointer in front of what seemed like a hundred white-coated medical students. Afternoon tea with icecream didn't quite make up for the feeling of being a small and frightened non-person. At 14, a hundred miles away from home in a plastic surgery ward full of people seriously mangled by car crashes and fires, I was given an operation that nobody had thought to tell me about which I came round from unable to walk. A couple of years later, a gynaecologist, while giving me an internal examination, asked me if I'd "always been so fat". There were other incidents- by the time I was 20 I'd had it with

doctors and since then have avoided the medical profession like the plague. Apart from having a baby in hospital, which was more of the same and a big mistake (not the baby!) I've gone to alternative health practitioners.

So this is the background. Over the years I'd been developing a lump on my knee: a subcutaneous cyst, benign, quite squishy and ignorable except that it kept getting bigger. Since I've been doing

"process drawing" I work on the floor and in a particularly creative period a couple of years ago the lump on my knee really started to hurt. By this time it was about an inch in diameter. So... I started to draw what it felt like, something inside seemed to be pressing to get out. What emerged were lots of strange

creatures, almost snakes and birds, and a porcupine, enmeshed in viscera and in earthy colours: yellow ochre, rusty orange, dried blood red, but something sunny and jolly about them too. While I was doing it, I wondered if I drew and worked with it enough, the cyst would disappear of its own accord.

Meanwhile I went to a doctor who sent me to a surgeon, who reminded me of Sir Somebody-or-Other who was non-committal when I asked if I could have a local anaesthetic as I react badly to generals. When the appointment arrived from hospital, indicating I was to have a general anaesthetic I thought, "Sod this, I can live with a lump on my knee," and cancelled it.

So I did live with it. Until I moved to Edinburgh and was recommended a good GP because by this

time with "real" health problems, I needed blood tests. I was very impressed with this doctor. He treated me like an intelligent human being and on my first appointment, noticing on my form that I was an artist, used the analogy of water-colour painting to explain something about my symptoms. I had the feeling that if I'd been a brickie, it would have been mixing mortar. After another strenuous bout of crawling around the floor drawing, I mentioned the cyst in passing to this doctor. He wiggled it about and said, "I can deal with that in my small operations' clinic - it doesn't appear to be attached to anything."

A few days before the operation I got out the drawing of the cyst and got to know it again - working into some of the figures, making adjustments, pondering the words: "cut out, cut open, cut away." Rather than "getting rid of", they seemed to be more about freeing or letting go of something.

The surgery was strangely quiet when I turned up for my appointment, everyone appeared to be out for the afternoon. We went into the nurses' room and I lay back and put my trust in the doctor. I liked his quiet, deft manner and the way he explained what he was doing. The several injections of local anaesthetic around my kneecap were painful. After they'd taken, the doctor got busy cutting and I felt confident that this would be quickly over, imagining my knee being cleanly sliced open and

this squishy ball popping out intact.

After a while it became apparent that this wasn't to be.

After an even longer while, I started to sweat and the doctor explained that, in fact, the cyst was attached to a large blood vessel and many small capillaries. I knew the anaesthetic wouldn't last long. I felt the doctor sweating too - under his reassuring manner.

I felt afraid and started to panic. "Relax, relax," I was saying to myself, when I remembered my picture. The atmosphere changed. Suddenly the air was thick with something else. Strange birds were flying around my head and a snake was coiled protectively around my leg. They were both deeply reassuring and wildly joyful.

Time changed. There was infinite time, the anglepoise bathed us in holy light. There was a deep velvety silence. Together, my doctor and I, working in partnership, were cutting out the cyst, he with his knowledgeable fingers and scalpel and I with my retinue of shamanic creatures.

The cyst was a strange, white and bloody thing that I wanted to take home and prod - curious about something that had been living with me for so long but it was destined for the lab. For some odd reason I couldn't find a bus or a cab and walked the one and a half miles home - it seemed part of the process.

I had wondered if drawing might get rid of the cyst, which it kind of did but in a surprising way - for it helped me to have a positive experience with a doctor. My past experiences had left me feeling disempowered and unable to stand up for myself - yet here I was co-operating (!) with a member of the medical profession in creating my better health.

Such is the power of art! (And good doctors!)




Kirsty O'Connor is a self-taught artist, activist and parent living in Edinburgh. She believes in creativity as an agent of radical change, both inner and outer. She studies Process Oriented Psychology in relation to the creative process and is artist-in-residence on a unique mental health project at a hospital in southern England. She works mainly in pastels and charcoal, exploring altered states, symptoms, sexuality and other levels of reality. She also creates books and publications.


back to top