Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Vaginas for Sale!

So after I quit all my random jobs, I had time to do lots of other random things. Like clean my bathroom, cook with anchovy paste, and watch reruns of "Iron Chef" on Food Network. 

In April, I got a phone call from a certain agitator--for privacy's sake, let's call him "Peter J." ...No, that's too obvious. Uhh, let's say, "P. Jeppson"--who had a proposition to offer. I thought he was going out of town again and needed a babysitter, and wondered why he was calling instead of Lori, because I saw Lori at Pinkberry all the time, but that's not what he had in mind. Instead, he asked if: a) would I like to do some medical illustration for an article he was writing?; b) would I mind, because the pictures might be kind of gross?; c) would I be able to finish the project by June 4? 

So then we had this conversation: 

Me: "Um, I've never done medical illustration before..."
PJ: "I've seen what you do on your blog. You're very talented. I'm sure you'd do a great job..."

When he said "what you do on your blog," this is what he was referring to: 


Which is a really good indication of what my medical illustration might look like, right? 

PJ: "Besides, you'll be published and you'll be able to put the illustrations in your portfolio..."

When he said "your portfolio," he meant my children's book illustration portfolio for RISD. 

It all made perfect sense, so I said, "Ok, I'll do it!" 

By the way, PJ specializes in urogynecology, which meant I'd be drawing...vaginas. Specifically, a series of images detailing the unfortunate condition of vaginal prolapse. It's basically when your uterus falls out through your vagina and hangs outside of you like a sock full of sand. I'm told it can feel like you're sitting on a tennis ball when you prop yourself in an upright sitting position. 

So I added "scouring Google images for vaginal prolapse" to my list of random hobbies in May. I recommend that you don't try it at home if you don't have to.

The first two images were easier because they've been done before, in varying styles and media, by several professional illustrators as follows: 

saggital planes of prolapsed anatomy 

and incisions of the fascial plane between the cervix and bladder.
But reference photos for the last two images didn't exist anywhere in published journals or on Google images. I had to imagine a coronal view of a three-dimensional bladder and the distal course of the ureters in vaginal prolapse. So I had to think carefully about the normal anatomy first: 





In normal anatomy, the urethra is "below" the bladder, but in prolapse, the bladder slips "below" the urethra:
So imagine an illustration of what this might look like from the front, as if you're looking straight through instead of from the midsection view. Plus, add the ureters, those tube thingies that carry pee from the kidneys to the bladder: 



I had to picture what ureters would look like in the prolapsed anatomy when the bladder drops. I didn't get it until I asked PJ to sculpt it for me: 


I tried to make this less awkward by suggesting that we play Cranium and sculpt "prolapsed bladder." Ready, set, go!
The pencil is the "urethra." In case you couldn't tell.
The hardest part wasn't looking at real life operating room pictures of hysterectomies, or even drawing the anatomy, but the editing and formatting on Photoshop. Somehow I finished everything on time, making it up along the way. I watched this video of a medical illustrator creating a "single, exquisite image." It kind of validated my makeshift process, because I followed his basic steps. Except I didn't have all the fancy drawing software, nor am I one of the 1200 board certified medical illustrators in the U.S., so my images weren't quite as exquisite. For example, instead of drawing the fat tissue on the computer, I scanned pieces of leftover bread and found images of sweaty arms and manipulated them in Photoshop to look like fat. Don't tell anyone I did that...

The article won't be out until 2014. I still occasionally have dreams where the editors send me nasty emails telling me that I have 24 hours to redo everything because something is wrong with them. Maybe when the article is published I'll finally believe the vaginas are ready for prime time. Until then, you can await your glimpse of the final versions. But really, they're not that interesting. Unless you get paid to study vaginas for a living. 

And that is the story of how I created the crowning glory of my portfolio and magically became the world's most obscure medical illustrator overnight, for a limited time only. As I say, there's a reason for everything. One day the muscle linings holding my uterus in place may decide to take a permanent holiday. In the event that this does happen, at least I'll be able to spot the symptoms immediately.