As a young child growing up in Oxford, Ohio, Veena Patel, MD, demonstrated a talent for arts and crafts. At age 7, she painted a portrait of her father, now a retired mechanical engineer, which he still proudly admires.
Dr. Patel, an assistant rheumatology professor at Dell Medical School—the graduate medical school of the University of Texas at Austin—vividly remembers how her father and she enrolled in art classes at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, and then attended art shows featuring the works of students attending those classes.
“My dad has had a passion for art since he was young and has been my biggest inspiration,” she says, adding that her parents encouraged her to pursue art as a hobby, not as an occupation, to immunize her against the starving artist syndrome. “Some of my fondest childhood memories are of painting and visiting art museums with my dad.”
Dr. Patel has two passions in life—art and medicine, which she believes go hand in hand. She explains that artists and physicians start with a blank slate, whether they are figuring out what to draw or paint on a canvas or diagnosing patients. Both must pay attention to detail, conduct some research, creatively think about their next step and accept the unknown—solutions aren’t always black and white.
Over the years, Dr. Patel’s art pieces have included embroidered accessories, such as purses and hats, pottery, jewelry and homemade birthday cards for family and friends.
Dr. Patel graduated from the American University of Antigua College of Medicine, Antigua and Barbuda, in 2012. While serving as one of the university’s graduate medical interviewers between 2013 and 2017, she also completed her residency in internal medicine in 2016 at McGovern Medical School, University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston. In 2016 and 2017, she also served as chief resident in quality and patient safety at Baylor College of Medicine and Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, Houston.
In 2017, Dr. Patel moved to Chicago to complete a two-year rheumatology fellowship at the University of Chicago, where she moonlighted as a hospitalist in the school’s hospitalist division. In September 2019, she was appointed to her current position and moved to Austin.
While completing her medical education, Dr. Patel couldn’t devote much time to drawing and painting. It wasn’t until she was a first-year fellow at the University of Chicago that art re-entered her life.
‘Some of my fondest childhood memories are of painting and visiting art museums with my dad.’
“Medical school consumed everything, so I put my art on the back burner,” she says. “But when I came to the University of Chicago, I received an email [saying] the university had partnered with the National Arts Program Foundation to exhibit staff art at the medical center. That really got me excited.”
Dr. Patel submitted two paintings: one depicting a vibrant toucan and another featuring a pair of flamingos. She says a trip to Costa Rica, home to many species of colorful wildlife, was the inspiration for both paintings. She received a cash prize for the toucan painting, which won first place in the amateur category. (Her father teased that since she earned money for her art, she’s now technically a professional artist.)
Dr. Patel says that while she was in Chicago, several of her paintings were also displayed at an art show and then at a local brewery. Chicago supports a rich art culture, as does the city of Austin. She says her next step is to reach out to local artists and get involved in the Austin art community.
Just for Fun
Dr. Patel says practicing art and rheumatology have taught her to accept “the grayness” in life and helped her open up emotionally. She explains that it doesn’t bother her if something isn’t exact or off center. She believes developing that mindset has made her a better artist and rheumatologist.
At least nine of her paintings hang on her apartment walls, and her parents’ home is filled with many more paintings, perhaps another 100, says Dr. Patel.
Despite her father’s teasing, she has no plans to sell any of them. She prefers to practice art as a hobby, without worrying about deadlines or critics, and paint or draw whenever she is inspired.
“Art is like a meditation,” she says, adding that her paintings take roughly two months to complete. “It’s really nice to go through the whole process of deciding something to paint, getting the supplies and then working on it. I really like working with mixed media, using prints and bright colors.”
In the near future, she plans to attend art classes to develop a deeper understanding of the technicality of art, such as light, perspective and depth, which she believes will enhance her artistic skills. Besides focusing on nature or animals, she also hopes to explore different mediums, including drawing and graffiti art.
She encourages other physicians to explore their artistic side: “Take some art classes. Just get out and try art. The beauty of art is there’s no wrong answer.
“There’s a lot of art in the way physicians practice rheumatology,” adds Dr. Patel, pointing to engaging in sensitive discussions with patients as an example.
Carol Patton, a freelance writer based in Las Vegas, Nev., writes the Rheum after 5 column for The Rheumatologist.