UK-based pathologist exhibits photo collection to honor friend with ALS – 71Bait

LEXINGTON, Ky. (November 21, 2022) — When Leonard Yenwongfai, MD, pathologist at UK HealthCare, was a young boy, he asked his father what motivated him to work as a police detective.

His father responded with four simple words: “Never stop being curious.” Yenwongfai, who goes by the name of “Leo,” has used these four words as a definite inspiration and motivation for a career in medicine that has shaped his life has dreamed for a long time.

Yenwongfai earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Buea in his native Cameroon before immigrating to the United States in 2009. Growing up, he realized he had an affinity for detail — a trait that inspired him to major in pathology during his final year of medical school at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.

“I never thought about pathology until my senior year in medical school when I learned about what pathologists actually do,” Leo said. “And because I’m so detail-oriented, I felt like pathology was the only path in medicine where I could really put my attention to detail to good use.”

Pathology, or the study of disease, seemed perfectly suited to Yenwongfai as he learned to examine anatomical tissues in the laboratory by looking at the tiniest cells through a microscope. Although pathologists rarely interact with patients on a daily basis, they impact almost every level of patient care, from diagnosing diseases like cancer to assisting in the management of other chronic diseases through laboratory testing.

Yenwongfai, who became the first doctor in his family, said being a first-generation international student in medical school brought with it challenges. He made it a priority to focus on church, family, and finding hobbies to keep him busy that would get him through the toughest of times.

While still at school, Leo and his wife Anita had their first child in 2013. Leo’s innate curiosity – and his new daughter – inspired him to learn a new skill outside of the lab.

“When we had our daughter, I always thought it was cool when people post photos of their kids over the years to show how much they’ve grown,” Leo said. “So I felt like I needed a way to document my daughter’s growth as well — and that’s how I started learning photography.”

Although Leo never studied art or photography a day in his life, over time he taught himself photography skills by following online tutorials. But once he got into pathology, he said his interest in photography became more than just a hobby.

“I stayed home with my daughter for the first year and took so many photos of her,” Leo said. “That’s when my initial interest in photography began. But when I got into pathology, everything changed. I realized that in pathology we do so much of documenting tissues and cells through photos – documenting things that humans can’t see with the naked eye.”

What Leo loved about pathology, examining small details, became his passion for photography. Leo’s photography brings out intricate patterns with a pathologist’s eye for detail.

“Taking a lot of photos in pathology really pushed me to not only delve more into the subject itself, but it also pushed me to see the details and patterns in the world around me with my camera,” said Leo . “And that’s really how I started taking the kind of photos that I do. I like to take photos of what might be “normal” or “everyday” for the average person and pull out the complex features with my camera and composition.”

Leo began examining the world around him and beyond with his camera – he even started taking pictures of the moon and stars. But when a close friend from his church became ill, he found himself with a new motivation to take pictures.

“A friend of mine, Sandra Marlowe, who sang in our church choir with my wife, had trouble swallowing and speaking and choked on food,” Leo said. “She went to see doctors in the UK and after two months of various tests, doctors diagnosed her with Bulbar ALS.”

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a fatal, progressive disease of the nervous system that results in a severe loss of muscle control. According to the ALS Association, two out of every 100,000 people are newly diagnosed with ALS each year. Marlowe was diagnosed by Edward J. Kasarskis, MD, Ph.D., ALS specialist at the Kentucky Neuroscience Institute and professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.

In particular, Bulbar ALS occurs in only 25% of ALS diagnoses – leading to the onset of symptoms such as weakness in the facial muscles, speech problems and difficulty swallowing, while the other 75% of ALS patients first see an impact on the muscles in their limbs. People with bulbar ALS have a shorter lifespan than people with a normal diagnosis of ALS because the person’s speech, breathing, nutrition, and hydration become impaired more quickly.

“Unfortunately, Sandra’s health started to deteriorate very quickly,” Leo said. “It was just very difficult to see. What struck me the most last summer was when she posted on Facebook how she missed spending time outdoors – something she loved dearly before her diagnosis.”

He felt if there was one thing he could do for Marlowe it would be to photograph flowers and send them to her so she could continue to feel a connection to nature within the walls of her home. And that’s exactly what he did all summer.

“In my free time, I would go out and take photos of pollinations and flowers and just share them with her,” Leo said. “She just really loved it and I started to love it too, it became therapeutic for me. She really influenced me to do this type of photography and I just wanted to give her the opportunity to still have a connection to and experience nature without necessarily going outside. That’s why I did it and it helped her.”

When Leo’s colleagues saw his photography, they were impressed and encouraged him to reach out to the UK Arts in HealthCare team – the group that installs art in the UK’s hospitals and clinics. Studies show that consuming and appreciating works of art can increase the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of everyone, including patients, visitors, and even healthcare workers. The artworks installed throughout UK HealthCare are a key enabler of the holistic care that UK provides.

“I figured if my photos could help my friend Sandra stay positive and connected to nature as she battles ALS, it could help patients in the UK, too,” Leo said. “Now a collection of my work will be on display at the Kentucky Clinic – hopefully to spread joy and help with the healing process for some patients who come to the UK.”

His collection, entitled Patterns and Pollinators, features a variety of different flowers and insects. His photographs document nature’s complex patterns with a curious and scientific attention to the smallest details that reflect the structures of our world, including the types of tissues and cells he studies as a pathologist. The collection is housed in the Arts in HealthCare North Gallery on the third floor of the Kentucky Clinic.

“For me, I really use photography as a stress reliever,” Leo said. “When I’m super stressed, I just go out and sit and take in the world around me. Nothing is accidental, every photo I take is intentional after interacting with my surroundings and exploring the details of what I see.”

Today, Leo’s family is still in close contact with Marlowe. He says that not only did it inspire him to explore this new type of photography, but it drives him every day through his pathology residency program as he sees her experience the challenges of ALS.

“Becoming a pathologist is going to be a dream come true for me,” Leo said. “Knowing that there are many diseases with no definitive cure, like ALS or cancer, only fuels my desire to learn more about these diseases. Regardless, we must remember that caring for a patient requires a holistic approach to their well-being. That’s why I wanted to take these photos for Sandra, and little did I know that I was about to enter a whole new world of botanical photography, now with my own exhibition to help others.”

The UK Arts in HealthCare program features over 2,100 artworks by local, regional and international artists in the lobbies, waiting areas, corridors, outdoor areas and examination rooms at all UK HealthCare facilities. Seven rotating galleries host up to 11 unique visual art exhibitions each year, including collaborator artworks such as: B. Leo’s.

Overall, Leo has a message he wants to express with his art collection.

“Ultimately, what I want to do with my work – be it my photographic art or pathology – is just to convey to people to slow down and look at the world around them, it can be so calming,” Leo said. “Pay attention to the interesting and unique details that you may never have noticed that exist in the ‘everyday’ or ‘ordinary,’ and never stop being curious.”

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