Anne Altemus ’80firmly believes in the power and grace of storytelling. Through stories, careers blossom, connections form, and transformation happens.
Anne, a one-time medical illustrator and now a leader in visual biomedical communications at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), starts her particular story on Career Day sophomore year at Notre Dame Prep when a group of friends heard a talk from a medical illustrator. Even though Anne herself did not attend said presentation, her friends saw HER future in that field.
“My classmate told me this is what I should do, so I said, ‘Okay?’”
This White Blazer Girl entered The University of Richmond unaware of exactly how to pursue medical art, but through a persistence fashioned from a desire to have a professional, lucrative art career, she discovered what she needed to do. Post-baccalaureate portfolio work at Baltimore’s Schuler School of Fine Arts and Maryland InstituteCollege of Art (MICA) led to graduation from Johns Hopkins University, one of a handful of institutions in the country offering medical art/illustrations graduate degrees.
As with any compelling yarn, elements of good fortune pepper Anne’s tale. A visit to NIH with her thesis advisor turned into a temporary job on an interactive cardiac embryology program. That stint led to a full-time position as a board artist, which she pursued for seven years.
With emerging graphics technology and the explosion of information found on the Internet, she eventually moved on to more interactive media projects for patient education and consumer health. Ultimately, she was named as the Chief of Audio-Visual Program Development at the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) at NIH.
The length of Anne’s current title illustrates the breadth of work her center does all in the name of patient education, wellness, and health. And it demonstrates the distance her career has come since her days of sitting in the OR watching Dr. Ben Carson conduct brain surgery to classical music. “He would lift out a piece of this brain, and you realized at that moment that this nondescript, not very colorful organ holds everything,” she marvels.
Anne’s commitment to storytelling has inspired her to share her career and love of medical art with Notre Dame students. As an adjunct associate professor at Hopkins’ School of Medicine, annually for the past 10 years she has hosted NDP girls at the school’s surgical critiques. “I am always so impressed with the professionalism of the [NDP] students as they watch these very realistic, graphic presentations” from the medical illustration graduate students.
Storytelling figured prominently in what Anne considers a watershed moment in her career—a 10-year oral history documenting health disparities in Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Native Alaskan populations. Working as part of a team of doctors, videographers, and exhibit specialist, Anne traveled to reservations and native communities across the country, interviewing 250 individuals to understand why, at a time of miraculous medical advances, Native Americans still suffer disproportionately with poor health.
Stories of tradition, trauma, and trust emerged, all of which have been documented in a major exhibit at NLM, “Native Voices: Native Peoples Concepts of Health and Illness.” First displayed at NIH in 2011, the exhibit is currently touring across the country to public, academic, tribal, tribal college, and special libraries.
As she looks to the future, Anne sees the story not only of her industry but also of those most young people pursue today as evolving. “I tell my students all the time,” she says, “No matter what you think you’re going to do, you’re going to do more than one thing in your lifetime.
I certainly did!”
Whether the fields are artistic, more traditional, or somewhere in between, Anne sees the ability to tell stories as the universal way to connect and grow.
“Everyone has a story; be mindful of that when you are interacting with people, even if it is for one time or for four years of high school…God is right there and there is grace in seeing and knowing that. And that is when you are kind to yourself and each other.”