By Laura Beil
The Art of Healing
After fleeing Yugoslavia, oncologist Sasha Vukelja turned to art as she sculpted her new life
By Laura Beil
From the time she arrived, Vukelja says today, Tyler felt like the home she never knew existed. She set about to serve the community with the same zeal that marks any Dr. V endeavor. (The “V” stands for “victory,” she deadpans.) She organized the region’s first Race for the Cure. She started an annual research symposium. And she has treated hundreds of local patients in clinical trials of investigational cancer therapies.
Along the way, she adopted a boy from Russia. A friend had asked her to host one of a group of orphans for a 10-day exchange trip. Ten days later, the boy had taken hold of her heart. As she sent him back to Moscow, she wept, and vowed he would return as her son.
“If you have to go into battle, she’s the one you want leading the army,” says former patient Tina Heimbaugh, who went to Vukelja with metastatic breast cancer in 2005. Heimbaugh claims the dubious distinction of being treated by more than 10 doctors. Of those, she ranks Vukelja the best.
“She’s out for her patients,” says Heimbaugh. Some are taken aback by Vukelja’s directness. However, Heimbaugh quickly adds, most people “absolutely love her.” This being Texas, one man named a cow after her.
Perhaps patients sense that Vukelja usually considers them, not just their disease, with the intensity of a sculptor. When she studies a mound of clay, she sees the entire work—even while her fingers are still dry. She begins shaping, turning, shaping again. Bringing a composition alive, she says, is like watching someone emerge from a fog. The form is never dominated by one feature.
On that score, Vukelja’s most recent work, a life-sized bronze completed during a California retreat, was at first a female figure with one breast. (She later added the second, but she still has moments when the sculpture seems wrong.) She had wanted to show that the body is about the whole, and not about individual parts.
When people learn they have cancer, she says, “they go into the fog. They lose who they are.” They can agonize over their malignancy until it defines them. Her job is to treat the cancer, but also, she says, to remind the patient that life is not about just one errant organ. It’s about treating, turning and examining everything in its entirety.
With the singular focus of an artist, she wants to bring someone out of the fog. To reconstruct the beauty shattered by cancer. And with each patient, the woman who grew up stateless keeps forging her connections to home.