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On the intersection of pain and beauty: One patient’s journey

"The pain passes, but the beauty remains" ― Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Jennifer Walker doesn't want to be defined by her disease. So much more than a patient dealing with chronic pain, Walker is a mother, a wife, a blogger and an artist. "As patients we're not just our symptoms," she said. As one of the speakers at Medicine X | ED today, Walker talked about the complexity of pain and the importance of finding an outlet to express it. 

Walker has both rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia and, she said, "there isn't one moment of the day that I don't have pain. My life is one long series of treatments." After a particularly bad fall her pain escalated even further and she turned to art to as a way to express her spiraling feelings of grief. "Art is how I figure out the mess of who I am because of my disease and in spite of my disease," she explained. "It's a way to reach outside myself when words are minute and fragile in the face of incredible sorrow and pain."

Art as therapy for chronic pain has a rich history that Walker looks to as a source of inspiration. In his later years, Pierre-Auguste Renoir suffered from chronic pain after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1892. He never stopped painting, going on to create some of his most important pieces while dealing with pain so intense that it almost paralyzed him. Artist Frida Kahlo was diagnosed with polio at age 6 and endured more than 30 operations and chronic pain during the course of her life. Her art became an expression of the suffering she endured, and she famously said, "they thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

Walker urged health-care providers in the audience to encourage chronic pain patients to find ways of expressing pain in creative ways. "There are tangible benefits for people who use art to process pain," she said. "Push us to share and feel and know ourselves better."

For Walker, her art is her refuge and the place where she can rise above the pain to find joy, power and meaning. "I still have hope, and I still have ability to face whatever comes my way because of my art," she said.

Previously: Medicine X | ED happening this weekendTeens use photography to depict journeys through chronic pain and Using graphic art to understand the emotional aspects of disease
Photo courtesy of Stanford Medicine X

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