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On Exhibit: a disturbing body of work

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Mark Li-cheng Wu's morbid mod-els are ready for their close-ups.

But Wu's not a fashion photographer. He's a pathologist, a doctor who examines abnormal cells, tissues, and organs for signs of diseases ranging from cancer to tuberculosis. Like all pathologists, the Northwestern University Memorial Hospital doctor uses photography to document the organs and tissues that pass under his microscope.

As in surrealist paintings, the subjects of Wu's photos are not immediately identifiable. The deformed organs in front of his lens don't resemble the ones that fit neatly into the plastic mannequin from high school biology.

A pair of lungs, once pink, is now black and riddled with growths. A brain's gray matter is broken up by a maze of cancerous blood vessels. Other photos show tumors that have been removed from patients' breasts, skin, and intestines.

Wu, a 30-year-old who could easily pass for 14, expresses a gleeful, childlike fascination with his gory subjects. "It's disgusting--but it's beautiful," he says about a 22-centimeter-long roundworm with three lips that was extracted from a woman's mouth.

Nonetheless, even he is taken aback by some of the specimens. In a series of three photos, an eye bulges from its socket, pushed aside by a giant white tumor. The swollen eyeball stares at the viewer.

"I was scared of that [eye] at first," Wu admits. "There it was--looking up at me."

Pathology is divided into several different specialties, and as a resident Wu rotates through all of them. Hematology uses diagnostic tests to detect anemia and other blood disorders. Tuberculosis and other infectious diseases are identified by the microbiology department. Immunology tests for autoimmune disorders such as lupus. Other specialties include forensics, blood banking, and chemical pathology.

One recent gray spring day, Wu was on call in the cytopathology department, where doctors diagnose disease by examining individual cells. A radiologist needs Wu's opinion on a biopsy: A woman with cervical cancer has developed a nodule in her lung. Possible diagnoses include a benign cyst, an infection, or a carcinoma--which would indicate that the cancer has spread.

Like a street vendor, Wu rolls a cart down the hallway, bearing the tools of his trade--a microscope, glass slides, colorful stains, and a tiny travel hair dryer. The radiologist emerges with a syringe full of fluid extracted from the patient's lung.

At Wu's direction he squirts some onto a slide. Wu pulls out the hair dryer; leave the fluid to air dry and bubbles will form, he explains. Wu then stains the fluid, making the cells easier to see under the microscope.

Wu's power of observation, much like an artist's, is his most important asset. Staring through a microscope he can identify abnormal cells by their shape, color, and size. Beneath the lens a group of irregularly shaped cells stick together, an indication of a carcinoma. Depending on how aggressive the tumor is, it's only a matter of time before the cancer takes the woman's life.

"Pap smears have done a very good job of reducing cancer of the cervix," Wu says. "But this is one that got away."

Wu notes that pathologists experience less stress than other doctors because they are less likely to come face-to-face with patients. While some doctors prefer the direct contact, he's thankful he doesn't have to work on his bedside manner. Instead, he confronts each diagnosis like a puzzle, calling on his senses and his expertise to help find a solution.

"It's easier because I can look at the tumors as objects," he says. "If you want to see patients you don't go into pathology."

"The Art of Pathology: A Hard Look at Soft Tissue," an exhibit of Wu's photographs, is on display at the International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive, through June 15. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 4. Admission is $5, $3 for students and seniors. Call 312-642-6502. --Erika Buck

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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