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December 14, 2023

Harvey pioneers illustrations of transgender post-op bodies

Melissa Harvey ’23 shares her post-op vaginoplasty anatomy illustration.

By Carlo Wolff

A Life Sciences Illustration degree was the ticket to a unique job for Melissa Harvey ’23. Her groundbreaking work as a medical illustrator for the MetroHealth System blends science and art and furthers her mission: to provide fresh knowledge to health care professionals sorely in need of information about transgender people.

Harvey is one of the pioneers in illustrating vaginoplasty, a complex procedure to construct a vagina. Although she is not the first medical illustrator to focus on the transgender population, Harvey says she is the first to illustrate vaginoplasty’s post-operative anatomy. “The science I’m translating is definitely new,” she says.

Gender dysphoria refers to psychological distress that results from a disconnect between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity. This unease can lead people to consider gender-affirming surgery, which is where Harvey’s illustrations come in. “I’m drawing post-operative bodies,” she says. “They’ve been through surgeries to change their genitalia, but there are still remaining anatomical features from their biological sex.”

Harvey works closely with Dr. Kirtishri Mithra, a reconstructive urologist affiliated with MetroHealth and University Hospitals, and Dr. Shubam Gupta, a reconstructive urologist at UH.

One of her CIA professors notes Harvey’s academic acumen. “She would always seek out instructors and mentors for advice and questions and apply that input in her work,” says Thomas Nowacki, chair of Life Sciences Illustration.

Rare honor
Harvey’s meticulousness and forward thinking are winning acclaim. Her work on transgender anatomy won the 2023 Social Impact Award for her submission at the Association of Medical Illustrators annual meeting in July. The ribbon signaling her achievement is on display at CIA, and she’s cited on the AMI’s website. The recognition makes her and her instructors proud.

“During the past two years, the AMI has added the Social Impact award to emphasize the need for diversity and inclusion in our work,” Nowacki says. “On average, 30 to 60 students enter pieces into the Student Salon, and often the other students are enrolled at graduate programs in medical illustration. So, it is no small feat for our students to win any of the awards.

“When it came to her senior work, she wanted to work on something that could have an impact,” Nowacki says. “Our work is made to educate an audience, so choosing a project on transgender anatomy was a topic that is not as fully covered for patients and medical professionals in this current day.”

“When we’re doing our thesis for senior year, we try to find a visual problem that hasn’t been solved yet, and what drives me personally is helping other people,” says Harvey, who considers her transgender illustrations a form of advocacy.

“If you Google any disease and scroll through the images, you don’t see anyone of a different color represented. It’s a huge issue,” she says. As a white person, “the best I could do is listen to other people, to minorities, and try my best to advocate for them. In my drawings, I try to rotate to get an equal amount of every race.”

She says that in her first meeting with MetroHealth, officials told her they wanted “a clear distinction of a couple of different races so we can hand out patient care information that’s appropriate for everyone.” In her illustrations, “our goal is to have a skin tone that you can see as a couple of different minorities.” Nowacki and Beth Halasz ’89, her CIA professors, share her goals and convictions. So do her associates at MetroHealth.

“Melissa Harvey has a stunning talent in illustration of human anatomy,” says Ginger Marshall, administrative coordinator of the Pride Network, an internal system at MetroHealth dedicated to LGBTQI+ individuals. “She has provided detailed drawings of standard bodies and excellent illustrations of surgical procedures and post-operative anatomic outcomes. Dr. Mishra, our urology surgeon who performs vaginoplasty, worked with her to show exactly what he wanted for use with patients. Her work, and ability to turn what he described into art, was amazing.”

“I want everyone to feel comfortable getting medical help and patient care information and I want everyone to be treated the same,” Harvey says. “I think more people need to hire and illustrate different minorities.”

Benign ambition
Harvey grew up in suburban Baltimore and has been drawing all her life. “I’ve never been able to communicate better than drawing, and technically, I’ve always excelled at it,” she says. Helping that along: Harvey’s mother has been an art teacher for years, so “I got free lessons all my life.”

The work Harvey does on contract with MetroHealth occupies her days. She also freelances. “I sketch, I do ceramics. I paint. I work on this other contract for graphic design,” she says.

While art drives her, she’s also interested in science—she was accepted to an undergraduate biochemistry program at the University of Maryland—so CIA’s program, in addition to the scholarship money the College offered her, made Cleveland a natural landing.

“I had to find something I could afford,” she says, “and CIA ended up giving me a pretty good deal for illustration.”

Soon after Harvey arrived, she found out about CIA’s Life Sciences Illustration program, “so I ended up applying to that major and getting in and going from there. I think I have a little bit of impostor syndrome,” she says, laughing.

That may be, but one thing is for sure: not only does Harvey have options to ponder, she’s at the beginning of a career that is far more than promising. All she has to do is choose her direction, be that medical illustration, art therapy, or her “third dream career choice, to be a curator.”

Harvey is studying for her certificate of Medical Illustration and looking into working for a master’s degree in biomedical art, focused on 3D modeling, at the University of Toronto. She’s also considering working toward a master’s in art therapy, perhaps at Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore. And, there are doctorate programs in museum studies at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“We’ll just see where the wind blows me at this point,” Harvey says. “I love helping people so much.”

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