Dr. Art Wheeler

Dr Art WheelerOn November 7th, Dr Art Wheeler came to visit my studio. He was engaging and filled with such an energy that you could feel it and see it in the twinkle of his eyes from the moment you met him. As he sat in my studio with his beautiful wife, Lisa, I began our meeting as I do so many. I love people and can’t wait to learn more about the person I am about to paint. But, this day was different. I sat riveted as the celebrated physician began to talk. Very quickly he suggested his portrait might need to progress a bit faster than my normal commission. With barely a pause and very little change in the inflection in his voice, he told me he was dying of pancreatic cancer and only had weeks to live. “I likely will not make it to January,” he calmly told me.

I sat stunned and for a moment could hardly think of what to say. He looked completely well to me which made his statement even harder to believe. I finally mustered up a few words to express how sorry I was, but he immediately insisted that I not feel that way. He stressed that he had enjoyed an amazing life, achieved so much in his 58 years, but owed most everything to his supportive and loving wife. He said in a very accepting way that his life would soon “come to a completion.”

Art Wheeler had enjoyed years of success in the area of critical care and treatment of pulmonary diseases. He had saved countless lives as well as cared for many others who sought comfort and dignity in their final days of life. Dr. Wheeler chose his treatment himself. There would be none. At least no attempts to stop the disease. Knowing all to well the raveges of the pancreatic cancer, he felt the treatment options were so hard to endure and statistically there was no room for success. He ultimately felt he’d rather not suffer both the disease and the aggressive cancer therapies. Despite the discomforts as the cancer progressed, he would live as normally as he could as long as he could.

As we chatted, the conversation became more and more intimate and meaningful. In some ways, he said, he’d been given a special opportunity. He knew that his time was very short, and it focussed his mind and heart on taking time to spend with those he loved and cared about, to tell them how he felt about them and his hopes and dreams for their future. He’d even been to see the ocean one last time.

I was deeply touched by his words and intensely focused. Steadily he began to turn the attention to the reason for his visit. His portrait. Wearing a suit, his wife said she really thought he should be painted in his scrubs. It was the way she and all his friends, family, and colleagues thought of him. Having a set in the trunk of his car, he changed quickly and we began our work.

In the days that followed I became determined to get the portrait as far along as possible. I spent nights and weekends devoted to the painting and working as focused as I could. Not long after our first day together he took a turn for the worse and was not able to return to the studio. Determined to press forward, he invited me to visit him and have a sitting in his home. When he first saw my progress he paused for what felt like a long while, he then looked at me and simply said in a quiet voice, “It’s perfect.” He posed for me even as he struggled to cope with the discomfort of the cancer, taking frequent breaks by lying on the sofa in the family room. Throughout, he was so encouraging and understood the importance of our being together. Before I left he assured me that I was on the right track.

By early December, an answer to my prayers, we had finished the portrait. Vanderbilt Medical quickly arranged a special unveiling for the doctor on December 9th. The room was packed with friends and colleagues. My eldest daughter also wanted to come to the presentation. Although weak and visibly unwell, Dr. Wheeler engaged his friends and posed for photos. It was a special day for us both. A little over a week later, he was gone. He passed away at home, surrounded by friends and family on December 17th.

Although it’s so sad to see this brilliant man leave us, he left such a lasting impact on everyone who knew him or had the fortune to have been under his care. I will never forget his courage, his devotion to his wife Lisa, his optimism and his support and mentoring of others. That support was extended to me while I attempted to record on canvas not just his outer likeness, but this brilliant physician’s thoughtful, caring and gentle bedside manner. While he was posing, he reminded me that “doctor” is Latin for “teacher.” Dr Wheeler was a great teacher. He taught me so much. Most especially that life is so very fleeting and each of us must find at least some joy in each day. It’s there all around you, big and small, if you just allow yourself to pause and see.

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