Medical illustrator Truex making her mark in neurosurgery

By Aline McKenzie / Holiday 2010

Suzanne “Jorlam” Truex’s office in the Charles Cameron Sprague Clinical Science Building is packed with unusual objects, including a plastic skull with a rubber nose, plastic spines, a realistic crow and a photo of Ms. Truex with pet rats perched on her head. An open drawer overflows with pencil drawings of brain surgeries.

These mementos reflect her aesthetics as a medical illustrator and an artist with a sense of humor.

Suzanne “Jorlam” Truex

A longtime illustrator for the Department of Neurological Surgery, Ms. Truex recently won international recognition when two of her illustrations of surgery for blood vessel abnormalities were selected for the cover of the Journal of Neurosurgery.

“This journal is probably the most prestigious neurosurgery journal on the planet,” said Dr. Duke Samson, chairman of neurological surgery and director of the Mobility Foundation Center for Rehabilitation Research. “Jorlam is amazing. She’s spent more time in the operating room than most residents. She has both the intuitive understanding about what’s going on in the body and the ability to explain it.

“I think a good illustration is better for teaching than a photograph. She can highlight the important part.”

Ms. Truex said her love of art started during her childhood in San Antonio.

She became riveted by medical illustration after seeing an image in one of her grandfather’s medical books of pioneering neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing performing brain surgery.

She received a master’s degree in medical illustration at UT Southwestern after majoring in art at UT Austin. In 1996 she began working for the neurological surgery department, illustrating primarily brain and vascular surgery.

“It’s satisfying to take something so complicated and turn it into a teaching tool,” she said. “It is so important to me that my art be of benefit in some way.”

Her artwork is devoted to the physical world of the human body, but her garb and appearance as a Buddhist nun, with shaved head and maroon-and-yellow robes, indicates her devotion to the spiritual.

She was ordained in 2005, acquiring the “spiritual name” of Kelsang Jorlam. Professionally and legally, she still uses her birth name of Suzanne Truex, but she often goes socially by Jorlam. “It’s complicated,” she admitted.

Professionally, she prefers to work in pencil but she works in many media. The rubber-nosed skull helps residents practice endoscopy of the pituitary gland through the nostrils.

Not all of her work orders are serious-minded. At the request of one surgeon, Ms. Truex did a color illustration of Humpty Dumpty as a head-injury patient.

“It was really silly,” she said. “That’s what I love about my job — you never know what you’re going to get when you come in. For me, this is like a dream come true. I’m in a job where I get to create, and they pay me to do that.”

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Dr. Samson holds the Kimberly-Clark Distinguished Chair in Mobility Research and the Lois C.A. and Darwin E. Smith Distinguished Chair in Neurological Surgery.