As a human, I am protected from evaporating by my integumentary system better known as skin. My body is kept intact by skin, the largest and fastest healing organ. We wash it, peel it, augment it, suture it and even harm it. Often the skin can take what we toss at it. However, there are times where the skin fails to remove the reminders of human vulnerability. Skin functions as vitality and health. Skin is the largest organ and fastest to heal. But scars leave their mark. While scars are a part of the normal healing process, they are a phenotypic reminder of bodily trauma. Some such traumas do not overstay their welcome.

After falling from my bike, the sting of the Camphor burned. My mom said that proved it was working. That damn camphor was scorching what healthy cells I had left, I tell you. But I knew that soon the oozing would be overcome by strange, stacking cells that did not resemble my skin at all. This scar was nature’s BandAid and I knew that everything would be fine in time. Unfortunately, there are certainly situations where a scar is more ominous and hurt-provoking. I want to explore the physical scar, the messenger of human experience, the visage of physical intrusion and the evidence of the power of the body to rebuild. Scars are a permanent reminder of the injury. Scars are a part of the normal healing process but the scars that remain behind after the ripped tissue has healed below are an outward reminder of physical compromise, clinical progress, medical limitations and emotional vulnerability.

A wound is clinically defined as an opening or break in the skin that occurs due to accident, incision or injury. A wound and its resultant scar combat this injury. The wound is smooth or jagged with unpredicted edges. The body mechanically without any conscious thought springs to act to heal the wound. What is rather predictable is the physiological reaction to the wound care. It is not enough to discuss the physiology of healing. While the body works its magic, we deal with the inevitable overlap of the physical, social and the emotional fallouts of scars. If the wound leaves no scar or scab, the wound represents overcoming adversity, or if the scar fatefully distorts the skin, the scar is a symbol of the fragility of all of us. Some scars do not have us question our lives. Some are just there and do not warrant a second thought. The scar merely exists after it has done its business. However, other scars force us to not simplify what they do and what they bring or take from our lives. These scars appear with the intent to make us whole again.

art by Ted Meyer

Skin is a canvas for health as well as its damning imperfections. The art of my respected friend Ted Meyer beautifully explores this paradox of intact bodies and scarred bodies through mixed media and medical science in his 18-year project “Scarred for Life: Mono-prints of Human Scars.” He chronicles the trauma and courage of people who have lived through accidents and health crises. Ted advocates for art to educate medicine in understanding the patient experience. In his TEDMED 2016 talk, “The portrait of the patient experience,” Ted shared with the audience that scars are a window into unique, personalized, lived (for better or for worse) experiences. Ted says that once bodies heal and leave behind a scar, medical wellness does not dismiss a person’s need for acknowledgement of that medical experience.

Ted uses mono-printing which entails coating each scar with inks then pressing the inked scar onto a medium. The juxtaposition of the scar splicing into a sea of surrounding ink gives a haunting new meaning to positive and negative space. The composition of the ink in negative space renders the real subject image of the scar. The relevance of the artistic expression is not in the scar itself, though of course the scars are why the scar was there in the first place. The artistic expression comes from the negative space surrounding each unique scar. There is no commonality in negative effect across the scars. The scars came about in different ways, infoliated the skin uniquely and healed as each body saw fit to seal.

art by Ted Meyer

These subjects in Ted’s installation own the scar and share that scar with the world. Optically, each scar is fractal, sometimes crevicing and other times mounding above the epidermis. The fractal geometry of scars are justified by the thickened rise of the replacement cells that took up residence. While the wound is perfectly filled and the gash in the skin disappears, the scar is imperfect in assuring our reactions to it. There is always a reason why the scar got there in the first place. But we are only interlopers to other people’s scars and their stories held deep within the dermis.

Featured image courtesy of Ted Meyer.

About The Author

Michele Battle-Fisher
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine

Michele Battle-Fisher is a scholar of health systems science, specializing in applying systems science and systems thinking to public health policy, bioethics and clinical medicine. She spoke at TEDxDartmouth 2018. She founded and wrote for the academic oriented, systems thinking and health blog, Orgcomplexity. She was formally introduced to the study of systems science at the 2012 National Institutes of Health Institute on Systems Science and Health. She is a member of the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science and a Research Scholar for the Ronin Institute. As Adjunct Assistant Professor at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine, she wrote Application of Systems Thinking to Health Policy and Public Health Ethics- Public Health and Private Illness (Springer), a 2016 Doody’s Core Title. She is co-producing the full-length News2Share documentary, Transhuman - Biohackers and Immortalists, which explores the disruption of radical technologies on the future of humanity. She has published commentaries in venues such as HuffPost, Hippo Reads and Impact Ethics. She is a frequent guest on podcasts. Her work is curated at mbattlefisher.com.