When The Nurse Becomes the Patient: A Story in Words and Images

Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction
Secondary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Annotated by:
Donley, Carol
  • Date of entry: Apr-23-2015
  • Last revised: Apr-20-2015


A nurse-poet well-known for her empathic descriptions of patients, Cortney Davis suddenly found herself in the hospital bed with a life-threatening condition.  Although she is a masterful writer, she could not find words to capture what she experienced as a patient.  Instead, she started painting her emotions—fear, suffering, and loneliness expressed through color, line, and tone.  The first of 12 paintings in this pathography shows her lying naked on a white slab, not literally what happened but expressive of how vulnerable and helpless she felt.  Each of the 12 paintings carries an emotional and spiritual truth—often raw and miserable.  Davis accompanies each painting with a brief commentary about how and when the painting was done, explaining, for instance, why some of the figures have no facial features. But the vivid paintings speak for themselves, and they add a different way of knowing not available through words.


This deeply moving story in pictures puts us in the patient’s emotional experience.  Davis paints periods of severe pain by using bright red along the incision line, around the screaming mouth, in the background.  The painting “On a Scale of One to Ten” expresses great agony, reminiscent of Munch’s “The Scream” because it also expresses fear.   Some of her worst experiences came at night, when she felt God had abandoned her. Two paintings reveal this painful loneliness. “The Dark Night,” in blues and blacks with a face full of tears, is a very narrow canvas, making one feel almost trapped and shut in.  “The Dark Night 2” is almost all black except for the white slab of the bed. The patient stands shrouded, her face a pencil drawing pasted on to the painting and looking disconnected from it.  Both draw on the archetypal symbolism of “The Dark Night of the Soul” when God is gone and time stands still.  Twice during Davis’s hospitalization, she was given last rites. One of the most remarkable paintings in this series shows a priest administering the Sacrament of the Sick.  Although she might be near death, she found the experience to be “electrifying, profound, and otherworldly,” (11) which she expressed by vibrant radiating scratches of color through the black.  Davis used to look at the stars out her hospital window and sometimes felt she was floating out there, disembodied.  The painting “Twenty-Five Nights” shows this experience, with a star for each of the nights she spent at the hospital and a watercolor of herself, cut out and attached to the background sky as if she might disappear.  The collection closes with a remarkable painting of her “Angel Band,” the many caregivers and family and friends who stood by her side through this ordeal.  They are two-dimensional and featureless, as is Davis lying in bed, but this one looks like Matisse’s cut outs, lovely spring-like colors and solid shapes.  She painted this one in thanksgiving for these angels saving her life.


Kent State University Press

Place Published

Kent, OH



Page Count


Secondary Source