Academic couple talk about death, art research

UF College of Medicine professor and pediatric oncologist John Graham-Pole, M.D. and Dorothy Lander, a Canadian adult education professor. Photo by Charles Poulton

Death and art brought longtime UF College of Medicine professor and pediatric oncologist John Graham-Pole, M.D. and Dorothy Lander, a Canadian adult education professor, together.

The couple met in 2004 when Lander attended an Arts in Healthcare Summer Intensive at UF, following her husband Patrick’s death from colon cancer. She shadowed Graham-Pole and they kept in touch, marrying three years later.

So it seems fitting that the pair, now both retired, travels the world together researching those two topics – death and art – and resiliency.

Graham-Pole and Lander, who now live in Nova Scotia, returned to UF June 8 to present “a multi-media duet” of their findings as part of the Center for Spirituality and Health series held at the Health Professions, Nursing & Pharmacy Auditorium.

Graham-Pole, retired in May 2007 after more than 25 years with the UF College of Medicine. A co-founder of the Shands Arts in Medicine program at UF in 1990, he is known for mixing laughter and poetry with medicine, as he treated thousands of young cancer patients over the years.

Graham-Pole and Lander showed a video of their recent visit to Rwanda, where art – including dance, music and mural painting – is being used to help victims of the country’s genocide. Many Rwandans were orphaned or lost family members in the brutal massacres that swept the African nation in 1994.

“Fifteen years later, the memories are still fresh,” he said.

For many people in the world, the end of life can be violent or miserable, but Graham-Pole and Lander also found evidence of extraordinary resilience and creativity among the tales of loss.

“Art is a vital thing we bring to the bedside of those who are seriously ill or dying,” he said.

Graham-Pole and Lander shared their losses and experiences with death as both personal and professional caregivers.

Lander took a sabbatical from her teaching job at a small college in Nova Scotia to care for her husband of 24 years, Patrick. He died of colon cancer just a few months later.

“Halfway through my sabbatical, I thought, ‘What do I want to do with my life,’ ” she said.

Graham-Pole talked about his daily encounters with death as a physician. When he was a young attending physician in London, he recalled the case of a teenage boy with advanced cancer. He knew the child wasn’t going to live long and he had to explain this to the boy and his family.

“So what was I supposed to do … I really didn’t know,” he said.

He said he simply listened to the boy and his family and gained their trust.

Finally, Graham-Pole said he did not give a prognosis but told the boy, ‘I’d be happy to be your doctor and take care of you.’

Graham-Pole first encountered death at an early age when his mother died. He said he found a letter many years later, in which she wrote that she hoped he would become a physician when he grew up.

“She died when I was 12 and probably set me on my life’s course,” he said.

Graham-Pole and Lander continue to do narrative research involving the arts and community health, palliative care, and holistic medicine. Lander has established research partnerships on four continents, examining how art has cultivated resilience among people experiencing traumatic events, such as genocide and natural disasters.

The UF Center for Spirituality and Health promotes discussion of the interface of spirituality and the health sciences.