Seeing Beyond the Diagnosis: a virtual exhibition that puts a face to rare diseases
When Patricia Weltin first put a call out for artists to paint portraits of children with rare diseases to share with the medical community, she had no idea how quickly the project would grow into a ground-breaking exhibition involving more than 70 artists and 135 children around the globe.
Beyond the Diagnosis first came to life five years ago when Patricia invited a handful of local artists and friends from the rare disease community in Rhode Island, USA to take part in a project that would encourage the medical community to look “beyond the diagnosis” to patients behind the disease.
Five years on, she has gathered portraits from artists and children with rare diseases living as far afield as Bali and Chile – and the artwork they have created together has touched the hearts and minds of tens of thousands of people at medical schools, hospitals, medical conferences and beyond.
Now Patricia is bringing a virtual gallery of these poignant portraits to the Cambridge Rare Disease Network’s RAREsummit21 on 7 October 2021. And it’s Patricia’s goal to make sure many thousands more people see this thought-provoking exhibition too.
We want to make people see our humanity, this is somebody’s child, brother, sister, grandchild, niece, nephew, friend. They’re just like other children.
Hunter was diagnosed with Russell-Silver Syndrome, which is a growth disorder characterised by slow growth before and after birth. His portrait was painted by Rhode Island-based artist Dan Lake.
Hunter’s mother Tiffany said: “He is a happy, fearless child. He is a proud big and little brother who loves animals and has accepted that he is ‘different’ than the rest of the world and takes pride in who he is. He is full of life and is always in a good mood.”
“People see the names of the disease and think it’s terrifying,” she adds. “They can’t engage with it, but they can engage with these kids through the artwork. We have so many artists using so many different styles and each portrait is a little gasp.”
A project from the heart to the heart
Patricia’s inspiration from Beyond the Diagnosis came from her own experience as the parent of two daughters who have a rare disease called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. It took 18 years for her eldest daughter, now 25, to receive a diagnosis and to receive the treatment she needed, including brain surgery.
“I was interested in my connection to the doctors and how we could have them see us instead of seeing a complicated disease,” explains Patricia. “They needed to see that we were people and I think that is lost in medical school.”
“You can’t teach 7,000 rare diseases, so you have to be innovative and think about ways to engage medical students before they become doctors with the reality of what’s out there” she adds.
Medical students are often taught that, when they hear hoofbeats, they should think about horses, not zebras, explains Patricia – in other words, they should think about common diseases in the first instance.
Amber was diagnosed with Giant Axonal Neuropathy at the age of 5 when she started to have problems walking. Her portrait was painted by Venezuelan artist, Jota Leal.
Amber’s dad Miguel said: “Amber is the strongest girl I know. We call her Super Girl!”
“We want them to consider it might be a rare disease,” she says “We want them to think the hoof beats might be zebras!”
It was when Beyond the Diagnosis exhibited 35 portraits at Harvard Medical School that people started to take notice of the project. There was national and online media coverage. And when a producer called from the TV network CBS one Sunday morning, Patricia was completely taken aback.
“We had 7 million people learning about rare diseases,” she says “I believe it was the first time on a major US TV network that they talked about rare diseases as a whole and our unmet needs. The whole rare disease community was so excited and that just opened the floodgates. We had people contacting us from all over the world.”
Within a few years, Beyond the Diagnosis had 130 portraits representing different rare diseases touring each year to prestigious venues like the Food and Drink Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
All of the artists give their time freely and many of them become very close to the families of the children they are painting – and go on to paint portraits for other families and children too.
“I always say it’s a project from the heart for the heart,” says Patricia. “I think that the connection and gift that the artists are giving is apparent in all of the work that you see.”
“This is someone doing their absolute best to capture these children – all of the work except one is done from photos. We give the artists all the information we can – we ask the parent to write about the child. So the artists are not just looking at a picture – they’re getting to know each child.”
The project was about to go global when the pandemic hit. So Patricia decided to take Beyond the Diagnosis online. The first virtual tour was seen by thousands of people in 23 different countries.
“I hate everything about Covid, but one of the bright spots is that we’ve found a way to reach people who wouldn’t have had the chance to see a live exhibit in a way that’s very calming and beautiful,” says Patricia. “It’s so beautifully done. You’ll see the portrait and you can click on a picture and it tells you about the disease, the child and the artist. You can sit and take your time and do it at your own pace.”
You will have a chance to see a specially tailored exhibition at the Cambridge Rare Disease Network’s RAREsummit21 on 7 October 2021. Sign up for your Vibrant Vital Virtual RAREsummit21 tickets for a chance to see the latest Beyond the Diagnosis Virtual Tour here…