by Bradley Hartsell
Laurie Wilson is better at her hobby than most people are at their profession. Her gift for graphite sketches is remarkable. Consider her uncanny illustration of “Hannibal” actor Mads Mikkelsen, or megastar Johnny Depp. And now, Wilson is using her art to help raise awareness and funding for her profession — head and neck cancer research.
The Griffin-born Wilson graduated from the Mercer School of Medicine in 2012 and headed to Tulane in New Orleans to pursue research in otolaryngology, commonly known as ear, nose and throat, or ENT.
Wilson discovered her calling while in medical school, when she realized the long hours were leaving little time for her passion for drawing. She looked for avenues in the surgical field where her artistic talent might actually dovetail with health. When she looked into ENT, she found that facial reconstruction cancer surgery appealed to her. Wilson was able to indulge her artistic side while following her heart in helping people, especially those who need it most.
Head and neck cancer, which accounts for 5 percent of all cancers in the United States, is a disfiguring disease that can, in some cases, result in losing eyes, parts of jaws or voice boxes. Often the surgical treatment for advanced head and neck cancer involves facial reconstruction. Wilson saw patients coming in with jaw tumors the size of golf balls who sometimes underwent surgery that further depleted the jawbone. Facial reconstruction in such cases meant taking bone from the leg to reconfigure a jaw, and such conceptualizing blended with Wilson’s talent. Seeing the reality of the disease, coupled with her ability to provide hope, cemented her choice in careers.
“Man, this is it. This is what I want to do,” she said of that moment when clarity hit her.
Unfortunately, otolaryngology departments nationally are underfunded and left to search for private investors, leaving Wilson and others unable to work in the field they love and, more importantly, unable to help other people.
“We’re working on some research projects that will hopefully save some lives and create some jobs for folks,” says Wilson. Wilson hopes the data from their pilot study will be enough to change some policies in Washington and earn some needed funding.
In the interim, Wilson is getting creative and doing her part to raise awareness and funding. She is using her talent to sell portraits and hopefully be able to stay in New Orleans so that when that awaited phone call to start work in Tulane’s research department comes, she’ll be ready.
Wilson returned to Griffin in May, unsure of her timetable with Tulane, in order to stay with her family, with whom she’s very close. When Brad Conkle, owner of the newly-opened Newnan restaurant Truman’s BBQ and member of Wilson’s church, caught wind of Wilson’s mission, he offered to help profile the artist and her amazing skill.
Working primarily from photographs, Wilson says one of her portraits will take anywhere between 10 to 30 hours to complete, depending on the complexity. She was self-taught from childhood and has no formal training. In an unfinished color sketch she showed off, Wilson’s sense of light and the distorting effect of glass is completely true to form. It’s fascinating to sit across from someone, their breathtaking drawings in the middle of the table, all while explaining the biology, symptoms and treatment of a deadly cancer.
As she fidgets with her box of colored pencils, Wilson says that oftentimes symptoms of head and neck cancer are innocuous and seem little more than oddities. Chronic heartburn, hoarseness, and one runny nostril are “symptoms that don’t seem that scary at first,” but Wilson says people should be aware and willing to get such symptoms checked out before it’s too late.
“People will walk in for treatment and they’re already in Stage 3 or 4. That’s when we have to start taking off jaws. If we can get folks screened and get the word out, we could get people seen at Stage 1 or 2, where it’s much more manageable with typically more positive outcomes.”
When the call comes, Wilson assures the efforts won’t be stashed back in Louisiana unseen.
“We’re not going to stop at New Orleans. My dream would be to see, nationally, programs put in place that would get people seen and treated sooner,” Wilson says.
The world isn’t always a fair place. With a doctorate and expert art talent, Wilson is still looking for her break. But history says talented and compassionate people rise to the top, and Laurie Wilson’s character is as true to form as her own sketches.
(To help support Wilson, call 504-444-8147. Prices generally start at $300 but are negotiable and variable depending on complexity. If you have had a loved one affected by head and neck cancer or simply want to help, call Tulane’s otolaryngology department at 504-988-2983.)