University of Vermont

Dana Walrath

Professor of family medicine and medical anthropologist

Dana Walrath

"'Dana, am I going crazy? You would tell me if I had lost my marbles wouldn't you?'" writes Dana Walrath, retelling a conversation with her mother, Alice, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

"'No. You're not crazy. You have Alzheimer's disease so you can't remember what just happened.'"

"'Oh. I forgot. What a lousy thing to have.'"

As a professor and anthropologist in UVM's College of Medicine, as well as an artist and writer, Dana Walrath advances ideas about what world cultures can teach doctors and other caregivers about nurturing patients, along with their families. Walrath put herself in that caregiver role — and her scholarship into practice — when she moved her mother to live with her and her husband. In response to that experience, she began work on her sketchbook, Alzheimer's Through the Looking Glass.

When Alice saw things others didn't — like dead relatives and dashing pirates — the visions were as real, in their way, to Walrath, whose response was not to correct but to sooth — and to bridge for as long as possible an inevitably increasing divide.

In her new blog, where she's now pairing narrative with her graphic representation of "Aliceheimer's," Walrath writes, "I've ... (made) her stories and hallucinations safe, normal, something not to be challenged. When ... she would say, 'You see (my mother) don't you?' I'd say, 'I can't see her but I'm sure you can. You have special powers. You can see things that we can't.' For her, that was enough."

Walrath, who has undergraduate degrees in fine arts and biology from Barnard and has studied painting with abstract expressionist Milton Resnick, got out her basic pencils and scissors, drawing and creating collage from cut text of Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland, "playing every single day" in what she says was a sort of celebration and grieving all at once.

Models in medicine

Her style is a departure from a medical establishment bent on finding answers and following protocol. "It definitely comes from other healing traditions," explains Walrath, who has lived in far-flung places from Yemen to Brazil. "It was extremely natural that I could think about other ways to understand what she was going through. Everyone has their own reality — and cultures dictate what reality is."

Since at UVM, Walrath has developed curriculum for a required first-year course (currently called Leadership and Professionalism), initially met with resistance from both students and faculty, according to G. Scott Waterman, M.D., professor of psychiatry and associate dean for student affairs. "I think her perseverance, clarity of purpose and serious understanding of disciplines that we know intersect with medicine, from anthropology to the arts, gave her a perfect foundation from which to be credible in talking about the need to broaden medical education," he says.

Walrath's classes, which she first taught and then trained other medical faculty to lead, use a number of approaches to help students work with diverse populations and to see how the effects of illness go beyond the individual.

In the written reflections that accompany her images — a work-in-progress she intends to publish as a book — through all the whimsy, Walrath continues this teaching, particularly those who might be struggling with the exhausting, angry, awkward nature of life surrounding Alzheimer's.