Sculpture grad helps mold surgeons

Sarah King 
Contributing Writer

Two VCU programs — sculpture and surgery — are seamlessly coming together through the work of 2011 graduate Morgan Yacoe.

A sculpture and chemistry major, Yacoe teaches classes to plastic surgery residents at the VCU Medical Center to help shape their perspective on the human body when they are conducting procedures. So far, she has taught two classes, the most recent of which took place Oct. 30. The first was on July 31 of this year.

“In surgery everything gets smaller and smaller and smaller, just like in sculpture. It’s all about looking at things from different angles,” Yacoe said.

Yacoe works in collaboration with Jennifer Rhodes, a plastic surgeon at the VCU Medical Center, who introduced the idea of conducting a sculpture class for surgeons.

“Surgery is all about applied anatomy and you have to really understand things in four dimensions,” Rhodes said. “With a living human you never know what angle you’re going in from, so it’s important that the residents are learning from a different perspective.”

Rhodes and Yacoe have collaborated since September 2011, when Yacoe asked if she could shadow Rhodes. Rhodes was going to be performing a procedure on Maria and Teresa Tapia, conjoined twins, at the VCU Medical Center in November of that year. Yacoe helped make the molds and models necessary for the twins’ surgery that would garner national attention.

“I made a multicomponent medical model, opposed to a rigid medical model,” Yacoe said. “This way it could be utilized during model surgeries so Doctor Rhodes could figure out how much skin she needed to grow, to figure out how much would be needed to cover the missing skin.”

Rhodes said she had always wanted to take a sculpture class offered once a year by the American Society for Plastic Surgery, but she never had time.

“So (I asked Morgan) could she do something like that?” Rhodes said. “She started researching and seeing what they do at the meeting and talking to plastic surgeons and we made it happen.”

The first session in July had six students and focused on sculpting and learning the proportions of the full-figure nude model. The October class had seven students and focused on the head, neck, face and shoulders. Yacoe said the second class was helpful for participants because most of the surgeons in the class focus on these parts of the body.

“One of the neat things with plastic surgery is you never know what we’re dealing with,” Rhodes said. “People get hurt in all kinds of creative ways, you’re probably going to see the anatomy in ways you’ve never seen it before.”

Since the Tapia twins, Rhodes and Yacoe have worked together on making molds for another set of conjoined twins. The two have also given presentations, published an article in the Journal of Craniofacial Surgery and were featured in a TLC documentary about the Tapia case.

“Morgan is a wonderful example of how a highly motivated student interested in both sculpture and biology can find her artistic voice in a uniquely creative way,” said Kendall Buster, one of Yacoe’s former sculpture professors.

Yacoe’s collaboration with the medical school is a part of a university-wide initiative to bridge the VCU Medical Center with the School of the Arts. Rhodes said she hopes to make the sculpture class a formal component of the curriculum for surgery residents.

“Morgan works out of a deep commitment to use her sculpting skills to serve scientific inquiry, and her work with the surgery residents at MCV is the kind of interdisciplinary dialogue that we highly value in the School of the Arts,” Buster said.

The exploits of Yacoe and Rhodes’ stem from this commitment of bringing together medicine and the arts. Rhodes and Yacoe agree that this collaboration is contingent upon their overlapping curiosities.

“The intersection between medicine and art, we talk about that all the time,” Yacoe said. “I absolutely, absolutely hope I’ll continue to teach the course for surgery residents, and I definitely want to continue as a figurative sculptor and also as a medical sculptor and teacher.”

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