‘Twins’ exhibition highlights link between the School of the Arts and the medical campus

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When Joe Seipel thinks of medicine and art, he sees the limitless possibilities created when you bring together two disciplines that most people think have little in common.

For Seipel, dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, art goes beyond mere entertainment or culture; it can change the way medical care is given, influence how doctors see things and even spark new ideas in the medical field.

Seipel feels so strongly about this that VCU School of the Arts’ newest venue The Depot — a 107-year-old former trolley station — houses flexible interdisciplinary workspaces for schools across both VCU campuses. It’s fitting, then, that The Depot’s inaugural exhibition highlights the cross-disciplinary collaboration that made the lives of a pair of conjoined twins easier before and after surgery. “The Tapia Twins: Bringing Together Arts & Medicine” displays the joint innovations of doctors, faculty and students from the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR), the VCU School of Medicine and the VCU School of the Arts in supporting conjoined twins Maria and Teresa Tapia. The exhibition opened Sept. 5 and runs through Oct. 26.

“How exciting this is to see this finally come together, because these connections and collaborations between the arts school and the medical school have just been burgeoning,” Seipel said.

The exhibition highlights the November 2011 separation surgery of then-19-month-old twins, Maria and Teresa Tapia of the Dominican Republic. The surgery was a complex, 20-hour procedure led by David Lanning, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the VCU Department of Surgery and surgeon-in-chief for CHoR. Care for the twins was a huge effort involving about 45 physicians and pediatric subspecialists who volunteered their time.

But the team helping the twins went far beyond the medical community. Several individuals and groups within VCU offered the twins their expertise. Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising students and faculty created custom dresses. Audrey Kane, a VCU occupational therapist who also is a certified car seat technician, designed a special car seat large enough to accommodate the twins for comfortable vehicle travel. Alumna Morgan Yacoe, then a VCU sculpture student, created a plaster body casting mold to assist pediatric plastic surgeon Jennifer Rhodes, M.D., in determining the best way to cosmetically care for the twins after separation. And Jessica Lynn, a student of Kane’s at the time of the surgery, and her mother Lynn Zinder, an art teacher at the Steward School, created life-sized dolls to comfort the twins after surgery – the first time they were apart from each other in their lives.

“It’s really interesting to see the unique skills from both sides of the campus come together,” Seipel said. The dean hopes the exhibition will help the rest of the university understand how transferable artists’ and designers’ skills are.

“I think artists have not realized how connected they could be to medicine,” he said. “And I don’t think medicine, engineering and business for many years realized the kind of intersections we have. There are a lot of overlapping circles. … Now we’re realizing that this is a much more connected world than we had thought.”

Yacoe was an early visionary when it came to connecting art and medicine. Between her scientific studies and her sculptural studies, she always saw similarities.

“It just seemed like there was so much overlap,” she said. “Thinking about forms and shapes and how they’re very applicable in biology, I definitely saw the potential before I was involved in it.”

As an undergrad, Yacoe was shadowing Rhodes when the Tapia case came along — not through any program, but because she was interested in sculpture and pre-medicine. When Rhodes was tasked with closing the girls up after the separation, she knew she would need a medical model to practice on. Recognizing the similarities between their respective fields, she called Yacoe.

“One day, she called me and said, ‘I think I have a project where we could use your sculpture skills for this big operation that I’m doing,’” Yacoe said. “So I came in and we talked about it and she said, ‘Can you make a mold of these twins and then make a medical model so I could use it for planning?’ and that’s how everything started.”

In the past, Rhodes had used medical models made from 3-D printers.

“You could color different things differently to see the different parts of the anatomy that you wanted,” Rhodes said. “But what I knew did not exist was something that modeled the soft tissue, and I had a very firm deadline and a huge amount of people watching me go through the process of doing tissue expansion on the girls. I really wanted to, No. 1, be sure that when I said ‘we can separate and I can close them’ that I meant it. And I wanted to have the absolute best reconstructive plan possible. So I wanted something I could do simulated surgery on over and over and over.”

Yacoe’s model consisting of soft foam and simulated skin replicated how skin expanders on the girls would work, allowing Rhodes to repeatedly practice stitching them up.

The skin expanders themselves presented another problem that the arts community stepped in to solve. After the expanders were installed, the girls kept touching the incisions, risking infection, which would delay the separation surgery. But their clothing couldn’t cover up the incisions. The girls wore dresses that were basically two complete dresses that buttoned together, leaving a huge shared neckline, or T-shirts that rode up exposing their sides.

“Anything they ate would go down between them,” said Kristin Caskey, interim assistant chair of Fashion Design and Merchandising. “We just thought about covering that but also, more importantly, about covering their sides. If you look at their [before] pictures, they’re wearing T-shirts, but their whole sides are showing. So we thought, ‘let’s make something pretty that will make them happy to wear, that they’ll have free motion under and where these tissue expanders can expand under.’

“It was sweet for us because I think fashion designers are often looked at as being shallow and the truth is everyone puts on something in the morning that makes them feel good or that they like and so why would it be any different for these girls in kind of a crisis time of their life? So we felt like we were able to provide fun and comfort in a time that made them feel special instead of the subject of a medical procedure only. It felt really good.”

The tremendous effort made by the nonmedical personnel had a positive impact that should not be underestimated, said Lanning, for whom this was the first art exhibition based on one of his surgeries.

“It not only made the girls’ and the mom’s stay that much easier and better, but it also really had a positive impact on all the care providers,” he said, adding that seeing the dresses and photos brought back a lot of memories.

“I congratulate all the people involved with this exhibition and for putting it on,” he said. “It really does highlight the wonderful connection between the arts school and the medical school. It really sort of highlights the sense of community that exists at the university.”

Pulling the exhibition together was no easy task for curator Owen Duffy, a Ph.D. student in contemporary art history. Most of the items, such as the dresses and molds, had to be recreated because the originals were no longer here — such as the life-sized dolls that Lynn and Zinder created — or had been discarded, such as the double dresses and Halloween costume that were no longer needed.

“The really remarkable thing is that the only original object is the car seat,” Duffy said. “A lot of the things don’t exist anymore; they were either thrown out or went back to the Dominican Republic. Everything had to be reconstructed. … We didn’t know three years ago that we were going to do an exhibition.”

Still, it appears to be the perfect exhibition for The Depot’s debut, demonstrating what happens when art and medicine work in unison in pursuit of a greater good.

“It really shows what art can do and the value of art outside its own discipline,” Duffy said. “It can be incredibly helpful and useful to any other number of fields. It is very valuable and VCU is doing cool things with it. And it really sets the tone for what this is going to be as a space.”

Going forward, the School of the Arts has many projects planned with the School of Medicine, as well as other disciplines across the campuses. The collaborations grew organically, said Jerome Strauss, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine.

“It’s one of these things that’s unique about the culture at VCU, where people hear about things and they come together,” Strauss said. “Our faculty member, Jennifer Rhodes, who is a plastic surgeon was absolutely enthralled by the opportunity to engage with the School of the Arts faculty in aesthetics. This was truly unique.

“I think it’s a model which is truly exceptional and people are envious of us because we have this resource and most medical schools don’t.”


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