Artist Simon Fieldhouse captures experience of surgeons and patients in RPA’s operating theatres
Artist Simon Fieldhouse is fascinated by a world that’s off-limits to most – observing surgeons at work in hospital operating theatres.
“It’s really interesting how many artists have tackled surgery. You could count them on one hand. It’s really rare for an artist to be in an operating theatre,” Simon said.
He wanted to capture the human side of surgery and to share his observations with others who may never be admitted to hospital.
He was granted special access to Royal Prince Alfred’s operating theatres from March to December 2018 for his latest project titled Art and Surgery, which explores the relationship between art, science and medicine.
The project was commissioned by Sydney Local Health District in partnership with the RPA Institute of Academic Surgery.
Seven RPA specialist surgeons consented to have Simon watch them, and their teams, prepare for surgery and perform delicate operations.
He spent nine days alongside the surgeons, nurses, anaesthetists, and patients in RPA’s theatres.
“I saw open heart surgery. It was confronting. It was astonishing,” Simon said.
He also watched brain, stomach, facial and orthopaedic surgery.
He was armed with a camera to document what unfolded - not a sketch book.
“I took 11,500 photos over the nine days. I used a wide angle lens. Then I’d go home to look at the photos. I’d look for the moments that captured the experience of the patient, surgeon and their team,” he said.
“It changed my perception of life. I admire everyone in the room… the nurses, the doctors, the anaesthetists and I have profound compassion for the patient.”
Simon was present when orthopaedic surgeon Dr Brett Fritsch operated on Sydney jewellery designer Michael Sobbi, 38, who had injured his knee playing basketball and required a knee reconstruction.
“It was all new to me that a doctor would have an artist in their operating theatre. I spoke to Simon before the operation and was very reassured about the purpose of his presence there,” Michael said.
“Dr Fritsch has a great team. There was lots of tools and equipment on the day of the operation but I felt comfortable and I actually forgot that Simon was there watching.”
Michael was back on his feet in 10 days and later spoke to Simon who was surprised about the speed of his recovery. “Simon said ‘From what they [the surgeons] did to your leg I’d be surprised that you’d walk in the first year’,” Michael said.
Simon used the thousands of photographs he took to create a series of ink drawings and water colour paintings which depict surgeons dressed in blue scrubs preparing for surgery and during operations.
“The artwork shows what goes on in an operating theatre. I also wanted to go beyond that to show the vulnerability of the patient,” he said.
Professor Michael Solomon was one of the surgeons who Simon observed and the co-chair of RPA’s Institute of Academic Surgery. He said the artwork is an accurate glimpse into the surgeon’s world.
“We do very complex surgery. It’s good to see the personal side and to see the patient’s journey,” Professor Solomon said.
“He [Simon] was very quiet in the back... he wasn’t distracting so what he captured was a little more natural. It shows health as a humanity and as a science. That there are real people involved.”
“A lot of surgery is about finding a better way... art and humanities think outside the normal box... and understanding art can sometimes help to understand a patient.”
Simon’s new artworks will be on display at RPA until the end of January for staff, visitors and patients to enjoy.