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Aging & Society

The Art of Reinvention

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As a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Keith Heller can describe a centuries-old work of art with the precision of a surgeon.

In fact, until he retired four years ago, he was just that – an endocrine surgeon at the renowned NYU Langone Medical Center and a former president of the American Head and Neck Society.

On one recent day, Dr. Heller kept a group of a dozen museum visitors transfixed as he spoke about a 17th - century portrait by the great Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens, featuring a family stroll with his wife and child in a “Garden of Love.” “Focus on the visual – what do you see?” he asked. “Both Rubens and his son are looking at her. He wants us to look at her. She’s the center of the family.  The rose bush behind her represents love and beauty; she’s the perfect woman and mother. This is a love letter to her.”

His guests, leaning in to trace the brushstrokes, were visibly moved by the composition. Dr. Heller then led them on to the next piece, a 15th-century portrait – of a woman facing a man – by the Italian monk, Filippo Lippi. It was part of an innovative 30-minute themed tour – this one, about artworks depicting couples – that Dr. Heller has helped develop since becoming a volunteer docent in 2015.

The patrons love it, and it’s clear that Dr. Heller, at 72, is in his element.

Taking on this particular challenge was not something he’d ever planned.  He’d lived and breathed medicine for 46 years. Growing up on Long Island, he’d been a good student in science and math and always wanted to be a doctor. The popular movie, “M*A*S*H,” about military surgeons in the Korean War, inspired him to go into surgery.  After completing medical school and residency at the New York University School of Medicine in 1977, he went on to become a leader in the field of head and neck surgery in major New York-area hospitals before eventually returning to his alma mater as chief of the division of endocrine surgery.

Dr. Heller says he began to contemplate retirement several years ahead of most of his colleagues.  “I wanted to go out at the top of my game,” he says, “and I wanted to leave with enough time to develop, in a sense, a new career.”  He thought about teaching in medicine, but felt that without an active practice, he’d soon be out of touch with advances in the field.  And he knew he wanted to do something different, to push himself out of his comfort zone.

When a friend suggested the art world, it resonated immediately.  He had no particular background in art, but he and his wife, Honey, had enjoyed taking art courses a few years earlier.  “I wanted the opportunity to be of service, but also the opportunity to grow,” Dr. Heller says.  “The Met provides great training, gives us the independence to develop our tours, and we get to interact with so many interesting people – from museum colleagues to the visitors.”

Three or four days a week, Dr. Heller can be found at the museum, leading tours, conducting research or overseeing, as a “captain,” the 30-minute tour program.  He’s one of about 400 volunteer guides at the renowned institution.   A medical editor once wrote: “The surgeon as an artist works in the human body with diligence and care.”  On reflection, Dr. Heller does see parallels between interpreting the artistic process and performing surgery: “They’re both visual, seeing below the surface, seeking out the context.” 

And on the tour, he says, he hopes visitors take away one lesson: “When you look at a work of art, there’s so much more to see than what you might see at first glance.”

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