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Professor’s work illustrates potential of medical humanities for healing

Rachel MindrupRachel Mindrup, MFA, knows better than most that the artist’s eye has a place in a medical setting.

Mindrup, assistant professor in the Creighton University College of Arts and Sciences, has, for the last 10 years, been using her talents as an artist to paint Many Faces of NF, a series of portraits of people with neurofibromatosis (NF), a genetic condition that causes tumors to grow in and on the body.The project is a personal one for Mindrup, whose son was diagnosed with NF when he was less than a year old.

The portrait series is one way in which Mindrup has worked at the intersection of the humanities and medicine, an endeavor she will continue in her new role as Creighton’s first Deming Endowed Chair in Medical Humanities. The post, established by Iowa radiation oncologist and Creighton alumnus Richard Deming, MD’80, is part of the newly formed Department of Medical Humanities in Creighton’s School of Medicine.

In her new role, Mindrup will work with a combination of medical and humanities faculty as they train medical students in the liberal arts with the goal of forming well-rounded and empathetic physicians.

“We talk about cura personalis, but this isn’t just talking about it, this is using Dr. Deming’s gift to us to foster it,” Mindrup says. “In the School of Medicine, we don’t just want to graduate skilled technicians. We want a physician who’s also going to be thoughtful and care for each patient as an individual person. We want to emphasize that the idea of healing goes way beyond just the physiological.”

Mindup has seen a deeper healing take place through her NF portrait series, which she began soon after her son was diagnosed with NF. The condition affects as many as 1 in 3,000 people, affects both genders, all races and ethnicities and is worldwide in scope.

“My son's diagnosis — which was due to a spontaneous gene mutation — was the catalyst that made me completely rethink what I was doing, and I mean in more ways than just what I was painting,” she says. “Suddenly things that seemed so important, weren't. We live a life of unknowns, as my son's diagnosis is unpredictable and progressive. Rather than just expecting life to be a certain way, I realized how important it is to live each day to the fullest because there are no guarantees with this disorder. I needed to be present not only for him, but also for the rest of my family.”

Mindrup says her son last year had experimental surgery to remove a tumor from his brain and is making a remarkable recovery. Another brain tumor, she says, will eventually need to be removed.

“But that is a worry for another day,” she says. “Today is a good day.”

Though the condition can be invisible, NF can sometimes cause severe deformities. Such was the case with Ashok Shrestha, a Nepalese man whose portrait Mindrup painted for her series. In his native country, Shrestha’s condition had led to public shaming and rendered him a social outcast. Two years ago, Mindrup led efforts to raise more than $67,000 to pay for surgery to remove portions of Shrestha’s massive facial tumor which was effectively crushing his skull.

“Art, in one way, is everywhere,” Shrestha said at the time. “But in another way, it attracts your attention, speaks to you. You see it on a wall, and it stops you. People go to museums to see art and have that feeling. They see art and are aware of its presence in their lives. I think that’s what Rachel has done for NF. She has stopped people and made them think about it.”

Mindrup says she has several ideas for her new position in the Department of Medical Humanities. For starters, she plans, each year, to bring to campus artists who are working in some capacity with health issues, engaging students in the School of Medicine and arts programs. For spring 2021, she has invited Eileen Powers, a Massachusetts photographer currently being treated for cancer, to work with students via Zoom and exhibit her work at the Lied Art Gallery on campus.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated some of her initial plans, Mindrup says she has ideas for several projects to pursue when the situation allows. She is deeply grateful, she says, for the opportunity to work in the field of medical humanities, allowing her to engage the expertise of faculty from across the University to create a richer picture of patient health for Creighton’s physicians-in-training.

“We want our physicians to be compassionate people,” Mindrup says. “If we don’t have them thinking about these kinds of things during medical school, how else will we ensure that they become the kind of physicians we want them to be?”

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