Working with UT-Dallas’s Center for BrainHealth, Bonnie Pitman uses her expertise in art to help both physicians and people living with debilitating conditions.
One snowy winter day in Vienna, Bonnie Pitman inhaled the breath that transformed her life. She had just completed negotiations to bring a collection of Egyptian treasures to the Dallas Museum of Art, of which she was the director. The exhibit, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” would open later that year, in the fall of 2008. Now as she waited at the airport to make her way home, she started to cough. By the time she reached Dallas, she thought she had the flu. By the end of spring, she could speak only a single word before falling into a coughing fit. A doctor confirmed the worst: she had some sort of unidentified respiratory virus, likely incurable.
A few years later, she’d become so sick that she stepped down from her position at the DMA, the premature end of a nearly forty-year career that included stints at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Seattle Art Museum. In search of a diagnosis that to this day remains elusive, she visited the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and National Jewish Health—a leading hospital for respiratory disorders, in Denver. Desperate for a way to look forward to each morning despite her debilitating illness, Pitman started a simple daily habit. On July 8, 2011, she resolved to do something new each day. Her hope: to make even her more painful days bearable, by doing something she had never done before—even if that something was as simple as, say, trying a new flavor of ice cream.
“I thought, honestly, I would do it a week or twenty-one days or something like that, but here we are,” Pitman says, more than ten years later. She can now speak without frequent coughing fits, thanks in part to an inhaler and a nebulizer, which deliver medicine directly to her lungs. Still, she pauses every now and then to cough into her palm. “It’s been a way for me to go to bed at night and not think about medications and pain, but to think about what I’m going to do the next day that’s going to give me joy.”
A decade later, she continues her daily practice, only now she works alongside neuroscientists at the University of Texas at Dallas’s Center for BrainHealth, as its director of Art-Brain Innovations, and she teaches about the interplay of art and health at UT-Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical School. Research suggests that practices like her “Do Something New” initiative can make a legitimate difference to those enduring chronic illness. It’s become a matter of growing relevance in the last year, given that an estimated 50 to 80 percent of COVID patients suffer long-lingering effects.