My photograph of Frida Kahlo has been transferred onto a piece of wood that rests on a table in my office next to a picture of me and my daughter and making silly faces. The little section of my office that it's in reminds me of an ofrenda, traditionally a collection of objects set up on an altar during the annual Dios de los Muertos to honor the dead and invite their spirits to be present.
Next to Frida and the photo, I have an ornate gold lamp, a few little trinkets I enjoy looking at, a miniature succulent and a few tools of the trade I use as a speech-language pathologist, like my digital recorder and the pen light that I click on when I peer into a patient’s mouth to screen for head and neck cancer and complete oral mechanism exams. I like Frida there, next to my representation of myself as a mother, playing and not taking myself too seriously.
A lot of people ask who she is, to my amazement. The writers Roxanne Delbene and Sayantani DasGupta point out in their essay "Self-Portrait with the Portrait of Dr. Farill: Frieda Kahlo's Recreation of Her Doctor" that Frida is “well known for her explorations of embodied and emotional pain.” This is what I tell people when they ask about Frida and why I like her.
When I first read this essay, I looked up at my picture of Frida. Why is she really in my office? What do I want her to invite people to feel? The truth is: I’ve been in pieces before. My own story is part of an ofrenda to the hurting people before me, and I get to heal with them. In reading this essay, I learned that Frida paints herself being fully alive, depicting herself, perhaps for the only time in her body of work, as an artist who in turn has painted a portrait of her physician. In doing so, she creates a “subtle reversal of the asymmetrical power dynamic between doctors and patients.” She paints him with her own heart, blood dripping onto her white dress.
This reminds the viewer that her process is her own and her physician is a witness. When a patient comes into my office, we can both acknowledge we have a limited view of the other, but we come together to explore what the patient needs, to find healing and growth.
In my own office ofrenda I’m inviting myself to be present. I'm inviting the power of Frida to subtly change the dynamic from the giving of my expertise to a journey a patient and I share.
Carly Bergey is a speech-language pathologist, singer and writer working primarily with people experiencing voice problems. She has helped to pioneer multidisciplinary voice clinics alongside stellar Ear, Nose and Throat physicians at National Jewish Health in Denver and more recently in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania where she lives with her husband and two children.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine