March 11, 2009
Doctor Calms Radiation Fears With Nature Photos
The walls of Dr. Bernard Lewinsky’s office resemble the pages of a National Geographic calendar: sweeping lake vistas and verdant forests brush up against sculptured rock formations and sun-mottled Yosemite hills. Looking at his photographs, patients remember vacations, times when they felt relaxed and at peace. It takes their minds off their cancer.
Lewinsky, medical director of Vantage Oncology’s West Hills Radiation Therapy Center, found that serene landscape portraits tend to calm patients’ fears as they face the harrowing realities of living with cancer. So the avid nature photographer created a Healing Art Gallery at the center featuring 80 of his images to put patients at ease when they come in for treatment.
“Nature tends to soothe your mind,” Lewinsky said. “The treatment room is often full of hustle and bustle. Patients are scared and upset — they have been given a diagnosis that means life or death. To walk into an environment that’s full of chaos is not what they need.”
The soft-spoken doctor, 66, began taking pictures at age 8. Born in San Salvador, El Salvador, and raised Jewish by his German émigré parents, Lewinsky grew up near the coffee plantation his father owned. He would often go out to photograph the coffee trees and flowers.
The idea that a radiation therapy center could have a calming effect on patients had been with Lewinsky for decades, ever since his 1974-76 stint as chief of radiotherapy at Letterman Army Hospital.
“We had one of the old radiotherapy machines that was a monstrosity,” he recalled. “It looked very much like the early atomic weapons that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
The generator was an intimidating two stories high. Lewinsky didn’t want his patients to feel any more frightened than they already were, so he obtained funding to redecorate the radiotherapy department. He had the interior painted the same color as the machine and placed large, majestic images of Yosemite landscapes around the treatment room.
In recent years, Lewinsky’s concept has taken off — his art now adorns the walls of 20 medical centers across Southern California, including Vantage Oncology’s five regional locations and the company’s corporate office in Manhattan Beach, the Breast Center in Van Nuys and the Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at USC.
Lewinsky shoots landscapes mostly in the American West — Utah, Mexico, Arizona — traveling with 20 to 30 pounds of equipment, including 4x5 film and a large-format field camera. His favorite places are Yosemite National Park and Zion National Park, which “puts humanity in place, it’s so big.”
People derive a sense of tranquility from natural settings, he said, which stems from similarities we perceive between the natural world and our own bodies.
“A normal person wouldn’t look at a photograph and see the shape of his thyroid, for example. But I think there is a subliminal connection,” Lewinsky said.
That connection shows up time and again in conversations with patients, he said.
“I spend more time talking about photography to some patients than I do about their disease,” Lewinsky said with a laugh. “They talk about how much relaxation they feel.”
For Lewinsky, photography has also been a form of personal therapy. The doctor was thrust into the spotlight in 1998 after news broke of the sex scandal involving his daughter, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and then-President Bill Clinton. “My salvation through that was photography,” Lewinsky said, adding that the time he spent in the darkroom that year produced images that were “very black and white.”
In his West Hills office, however, Lewinsky points out richly hued images on the walls and explains their back-stories with obvious fondness for the locales in which he took them. He greets patients waiting for treatment with a smile and shakes their hands as they leave.
His methods, he said, are expressions of a simple and intuitive philosophy: “You have to treat the tumor and also the soul.”