Can You Draw Me a Heart Operation?

He was born the third of five children, in Duden, a small village of the Yesilova Borough of Burdur, a gateway town to the Mediterranean, Aegean and central parts of Turkey. His father was the imam of the village and a traveling drapery seller, his mother the tailor of the village.
In those days, the world ended at the borders of the village. Today, with his medical illustrations, he is pushing the limits of anatomy at Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons, the oldest medical school in the US and one of the best in the world. Associate Research Scientist Ahmet Sinav describes how to perform surgeries with his illustrations. He continues to be one of the leading specialists in his field.

Ahmet Sinav together with his wife and daughter, Leyla.

But before continuing with Columbia, let’s go back to Burdur. He started elementary school before reaching school age, without registering. His teachers prepared his first report card on a yellow carton board. When the family moved to the neighboring town of Denizli, he attended an elementary school named after the famous Turkish painter Ibrahim Calli, a fortuitous event appropriate for his talent in drawing which would shape his career. As a member of a large, poor family, sometimes he had to contribute to the family budget. Even today his eyes moisten when remembering the shame he felt when selling ‘simit’ for the first time. His teachers overlooked his absence from school when he was roaming neighboring villages to sell cloth. And at the end, he succeeded in entering the Medical School of Ankara University in 1978, his way out of turning into a traveling cloth merchant. Indeed, when he learned of his admission to the collage, one of the reasons he celebrated was that on Sundays he no longer needed to go to the Sevindik Bazaar in Denizli. But today he believes that he learned a lot in that bazaar.

He discovered his drawing skills in elementary school. His paintings would adorn the walls of the school. By choosing a science track in high school, he had to say farewell to painting. At medical school he would work with painters from Ankara, meeting at the house of artist Hakki Inan.

He completed his studies at the Gulhane Military Medical Academy, and decided to pursue a career in the military. Then he chose anatomy as his specialization. He was influenced by the anatomical atlas of Frank Netter he used. He didn’t find the energy he felt was necessary in the clinical branches of medicine and believed the he could create similar illustrations.

He finished his specialization in anatomy and become the Frank Netter of Turkey. With a special permit he continued his residency at the Hacettepe Medical School immediately after his graduation, without having to complete field duty first.

After completing his residency, he tried to establish a discipline in medical communication. His aim was to facilitate the transfer of visual information among medical academicians and reach western standards. He was successful in his academic career, and became an associate professor, but the medical communication discipline in Turkey is still waiting to be established.

When his departure from the army became a necessity in 1997, at the time that disagreements between the military and the government reached a peak, he thought of the US as his primary alternative. Back in 1990, with the curiosity to see “what would happen”, he sent his work to Colorado State, and he was offered an assistant position. He was a senior lieutenant then, and he missed this opportunity because he couldn’t obtain permission to leave from the Gulhane Military Medical Academy command (GATA).

He still remembers the response of General Omer Sarlak, Commander of GATA then, “What, we are going to send you to the US so you can scratch out a drawing or two?” After many years he came across Prof. Thomas McCracken, to whom he sent his drawings. He began by saying “I don’t know if you remember, but 11 years ago I sent you my drawings.” The professor interrupted, “Of course I remember, you couldn’t obtain permission because you were an officer.” In December 1997 he was free. “The university in Turkey was no longer pleasurable. The universities are led by people who started to evaluate the faculty not according to their knowledge but by their appearance. People who drink were labeled pro-Ataturk, people whose wives wore headscarves were labeled enemies of Ataturk, reactionary fundamentalists,” he says.

Before coming to the US, his biggest fear was his insufficient command of the English language. With the encouragement of friends and family, he came to New York in September 1998 with a tourist visa. He experienced great difficulty asking for a glass of water from the American stewardess on the plane. He had money with him, sufficient for a year. His plan was to try his luck until the money ran out, and with the last $1000 buy his return ticket. With the help of retired art history professor Tosun Bayraktaroglu, he found a place to stay and was able to meet his other needs.

Sinav had joined the Association of Medical Illustrators when he was in Turkey. When he came from Turkey, he also brought with him an announcement regarding the “Visible Human Project” of the National Library of Medicine, a project to create a digital cadaver. The conference was a couple of weeks after his arrival in New York. He joined the conference, with an interpreter, and met scholars whose works he admired. When asked about his for reasons coming to the US, he showed them his work and said that he wanted to gain experience.

At the beginning he wasn’t much impressed with the offer. “We are from Columbia University. If you want to gain experience, join us and let’s do something together.”  Afterwards he learned about the fame of Columbia. He asked for some time to improve his English. He was invited for an interview after two months, and an agreement was reached. In return for a free university parking spot, he would work as an illustrator on the Vesalius Project, in conjunction with the “Visible Human Project.”

Ahmet Sinav together with his brother Osman Sinav, the famous director, whom he calls my best friend.

For the following three months, every afternoon, after his English class, he worked on the project. With his contributions he changed the shape of the 2-million-dollar project, which turned out to be one of the best. At the end of the trial period, he was offered a job by the project director. But he expressed his desire not only to work as an illustrator, but also to pursue a career in anatomy. He came to an agreement with the anatomy department he was working with on the project and was named an Associate Research Scientist.
His first question was, “Do you believe I can lecture a class with my English?” They laughed at his question. “We know your English. And we also know that it will take you at least three years to reach the level of English necessary to lecture a class. Whenever you feel confident, let us know, so we can assign you classes,” was the response. He states, “That’s when I understood the mentality that makes the US a superpower.” Sinav, who arrived with a tourist visa, obtained an “O1” Visa designed for foreign athletes, businessmen, and scientists who achieve international acclaim.

He states, “In such a school, it is a pleasure to teach anatomy to students of medicine and dentistry. So much so, that the students are forcing us to teach something, contrary to Turkey where we would be forcing the students to learn.”

Sinav draws attention to the fact that there are doctors who came to US to escape from the unfavorable conditions in Turkey and work here as waiters or cab drivers. “The US is based on a tough competitive environment, and if you are not very good at what you do, your chances are much less than in Turkey,” he adds.

The teaching method Sinav uses in class is slightly different than that of other instructors. Instead of somebody else’s drawings, he uses his own. He says, “Because I’m an anatomist in the first place, the chance of errors decreases.” He assigns his students to work on the internet with interactive atlases he prepares."

The older brother of Ahmet Sinav is Osman Sinav, the famous director of  such well-known TV series as Süper Baba, Deli Yürek, Ekmek Teknesi, and Kurtlar Vadisi. When talking about his brother, he talks more of him more as a friend than an older brother. He says that he never wanted to become a director, but expresses his desire to play Ataturk in a film directed by his brother. He also states he gets great pleasure when his friends tell him how much he resembles Ataturk. He says that he misses lecturing in Turkish, and there have been some offers from Turkish universities. He expresses his desire to be productive in a healthy environment and adds, “If the environment is provided, why not.” Sinav lives in New Jersey and is father of a daughter, named Leyla.

One of the drawings by Sinav, showing surgery techniques.

The visualization of medical knowledge is a must have, foremost in anatomy. If you take a photograph of an operation, the picture will contain many surgical instruments and the hands of the surgeon covered with blood. But it is necessary to explain this surgery to others and this is done using illustrations. This visualization of the medical knowledge is called medical illustration, and the artists who prepare them are called medical illustrators.
(May 2006, 20th Issue)
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07
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