Features

Doctors Who Craft

Across the country, off-the-clock medical professionals are turning to knitting, baking, painting, lettering, and other crafts not just for fun, but to doctor their souls.

At 35 weeks pregnant, Priscilla Sarmiento Gupana rushed to her local hospital with swollen legs and stomach pain. Severe preeclampsia, said her doctor, who ordered an emergency C-section. Twenty-four minutes after she delivered her baby, Maxwell James, her doctor pronounced him dead.

Pediatrician Priscilla Sarmiento Gupana turned to baking after the tragic death of her newborn son as a method of coping.

Sarmiento Gupana, a pediatrician, was shocked to learn Maxwell had a rare and fatal genetic blood disorder, Hemoglobin Bart’s disease. In the weeks and months following his death, she found comfort in handmade gifts she received from medical school friends. Years earlier in med school in New Jersey, the friends often met up for crafting nights as a way to decompress from their studies. A knit prayer shawl, a necklace with angel wings engraved with her baby’s name lifted Sarmiento Gupana up as she grieved.

“When people make things with their hands, it’s more than the object you get,” she said. “It’s the process and love and time that go into it.”

A baker since age 7, and an avid knitter, Sarmiento Gupana found that creating her own art also helped her heal. Now, nearly seven years and two healthy children later, she still finds solace in creating. Sarmiento Gupana makes intricately decorated cookies, many with a medical theme–an anatomically correct spine, a brain, a kidney–for fellow physicians, family and friends of friends. Her cookies rival those made by professional bakers. It’s a pastime she uses to manage the secondary trauma she faces as a pediatrician working in an underserved community in Aurora, Ill. And she’s not alone.

Across the country, women working high-profile, high-stress jobs in medicine are finding a haven and creative outlet in professional-quality crafting…

Across the country, women working high-profile, high-stress jobs in medicine are finding a haven and creative outlet in professional-quality crafting, making items like specialty soaps, cupcake bouquets, and mosaics out of test tube tops. Thousands have banded together in a Facebook group, Physician Mom Crafters. Many say crafting has also helped their medical practice.

Crafting is my therapy,” said Nora Hanna, a child psychiatrist in private practice.It’s something to look forward to. It gets me through a long day.”

Some of Gupana’s medically-inspired cookie designs.

Hanna’s chosen art form: hand-lettering, a modern style of calligraphy she uses to create handmade cards. But she also dabbles in jewelry making. In her home outside Atlanta, Hanna stockpiles pens, pencils, paper, and stamps. In her previous job at an extended day program for foster children with mental health issues, she used crafting to connect with kids. She helped program participants make jewelry to give as gifts and scrapbooks that told their life story.

“I encourage kids, and especially those who are anxious or pick at themselves, to learn how to knit, crochet, or do origami, to channel that nervous energy into something else,” she said.

For Sharron Mason, an MD who practices addiction medicine in Hot Springs, Arkansas, her “Crayola art” gives her an entry point with patients. She creates colorful, soothing works of art using crayons she melts on canvas and then manipulates with a hairdryer. One work in teal and green reminiscent of the ocean hangs in her office.

Sharron Mason hard at work on some of her ‘Crayola Art’

Mason, a single mom who worked multiple jobs before enrolling in med school in her forties, had to get creative during the holidays when her kids were young and money was tight. The family’s Christmas ornaments were DIY. “For $2, some spray paint, pecan shells, twigs, and ribbon, you can have a beautiful tree,” she said.

Years later, what began as a project to create a painting to hang in her living room morphed into a side gig and passion project. She’s taken over the guest room in her home as an art room and sells pieces to local businesses, friends, and acquaintances. She also donates works to the Christian music industry.

“I have to craft because working as a doctor is very stressful,” Mason said. “You’re taking on a responsibility for peoples’ lives. Sometimes those lives are very hard and sad and you take it home with you. When I get home, I put on my Christian music, I turn it up loud, and I start crafting.”

“Crafting is my therapy.. It’s something to look forward to. It gets me through a long day.”

Sue Summerton, a radiologist in Philly, makes works of art from recreations of X-rays that look like letters of the alphabet. She makes X-ray posters and signs for doctor’s offices, including her own, for friends and for people around the world who find her online. The U in her artwork is her own colon. She uses a recreated image of an eyeball for an O; a series of gallstones in a row make the letter J.

Radiologist Sue Summerton crafts X-Ray inspired art to help relieve stress.

I really enjoy the process of creating,” Summerton said. “People come into my office afraid to see what I’ve found on their mammogram. This takes away a little bit of that fear and anxiety. Creating something that can be a positive part of people’s lives is a gift for me.”

When tragedy or illness strikes the women’s online crafting community, they join forces to support each other, making a care package of handmade items to send the member in need. Sarmiento Gupana once baked up a batch of breast-themed cookies for a fellow group member’s “Bye Bye Boobies” party ahead of her mastectomy. She’s also made cookies for grieving parents of children who’ve passed away.

But plenty of her projects are just plain fun. Recently she made nurse hat cake pops for her nursing staff, whimsical ball-of-yarn cookies for a yarn store owner, and scaly mermaid tail cookies for a friend’s teenage daughter’s birthday. Next on her list: pancreas and gastrointestinal tract cookies.

“They’re silly sugar cookies, but they’re so much more than that,” Sarmiento Gupana said. “Crafting has been an outlet for me. It’s a cool intersection between my work life and my creative life and a way for me to stay focused. Baking is a physical representation of love and care and effort. And really, body part and anatomy cookies are just cool.”