When anesthesiologist Stephen London first arrived at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital in the early 1990s as a summer fill-in, he was stunned by the technology. The machine, used by Dr. Malcolm Dunkley, the first anesthesiologist on the Vineyard, was all manual. There was nothing automatic on it. The outdated version would not be found in most hospitals nationwide, he said. But, Dr. London rolled up his sleeves and went to work. He is a man who makes the most of the materials in front of him.
Dr. London discovered his calling after completing medical school. Working as a family doctor in Provincetown, he found himself gravitating towards obstetrics and gynecology. “Relieving labor pain is so rewarding,” he said on a recent day off. “Walking in and someone is just losing it in this moment that should be peaceful and wonderful,” he trailed off, clearly distracted by memory. “If you can relieve that, well, that really got me thinking.”
He completed his residency in anesthesiology and, in the mid 1980s, moved with his family to Maui. They returned each summer to the East coast, eventually buying a seasonal home on the Vineyard. After a few summers here, Dr. London decided to check out the local hospital. The new surgery wing had just been completed and the hospital was hosting an open house. At the event, he met Dr. Dunkley and offered up his assistance. A few years later, Dr. Dunkley began flirting with the idea of retirement and Dr. London volunteered to fill his shoes. In 1998, he and his family moved from one island on the other side of the country to this Island.
Dr. London is not one of those people who bring their profession with them to the Vineyard to escape the pressures of the real world. He is continually working to better his practice. Most anesthesiologists use nitrous oxide, but Dr. London long ago abandoned the gas, which carries health risks. He opts instead for pure oxygen. “Did you know,” he asked with youthful excitement, “that if you breathe pure oxygen for three minutes, you can hold your breath for ten minutes?” Using it in the surgery room better protects the patient, he explained. Recently, Anesthesiology News published an article he wrote about the technique.
“Even though I’m working on small Islands,” he said, citing his work on Maui, his practice on the Vineyard, and he is now on the consulting staff at the Nantucket Cottage Hospital, “I think I can have an effect.
“If I can change the way people practice, that would be wonderful,” he said.
The work of an anesthesiologist is demanding. Dr. London sits in on surgeries and births and works 24-hour shifts. “When you’re on, you’re on 100 per cent,” he said. “But when you’re off,” he paused, with a smile, “like today,” and his smile grew wider underneath his bushy moustache, “I’m going fishing.”
Dr. London is not quite a fishing fanatic, but he is not far from it. He does not traipse to far ends of the Island to catch the biggest bass, but when his friends cannot find him at home, they know to track him down on a small strip of Oak Bluffs beach called Hedge Fence. In one breath he describes himself as a fair-weather fisherman. In the next, he says he is out on his dock or in his small shore boat any day he does not need his beeper. Although, he has been known to cast out on the end of his dock while on call. “One time, I was down there with my beeper and it went off. I left my rod on the dock, forgot about it, and went to take out a patient’s appendix. When I came back later, I noticed my rod was doing this,” and he bobbed his hands up and down. “There was a striped bass on the end.”
A few years ago, while on a winter vacation on Maui, Dr. London took his love of fish to a new level. He signed up for a class in Gyotaku, the ancient Japanese art form of printing fish on Asian rice paper. A female master printer from Japan taught Dr. London using the traditional black ink and white paper. She told him, if you take to it, printing will take to you. And it did. “This is great,” he remembered thinking while in the class. “I can’t wait to get back to the Vineyard! It’s just one more thing to do with the fish before I eat it.”
When he returned to the Island, Dr. London converted his boat house into a studio and began experimenting with colored papers and inks. He continued fishing and used only the fish he caught to make his prints. Well, sometimes he makes an exception. A few summers ago, a friend dropped off a ten-pound fluke caught by his son in the kids’ derby. And this summer, a fisherman swung by with a triggerfish, a warm water fish passing by the Vineyard on the Gulf stream, which accidentally wound up in a lobster pot. He has experimented with starfish and horseshoe crabs and, after catching a bonito, he included the lure that snagged it in the print.
“I come from an artistic family,” Dr. London said. His sister is a painter and photographer and his brother is a well known klezmer musician. “The art gene is there, but I never really tapped into it because I was too busy with studying medicine and practicing.” But, as he holds out his hands to reveal ink still embedded under his fingernails from working in his studio until one in the morning the night before, it is clear that the gene has finally been tapped. Dr. London explained that the printing process is not dissimilar to his work at the hospital. “I spend a lot of my time watching and observing the print,” he said. “In the operating room, I stand, I watch. I try to predict what comes next.”
Like anesthesiology, printing is laborious. After catching a fish, Dr. London brings it home, washes it and lets it dry. He then exposes its fins and pins the fish in a pose. He begins inking the fish, first in black and then, after a few presses onto old newspaper, in color. “Usually, I can get three or four prints that pass my unusually high scrutiny,” he said.
“I am a perfectionist,” he chuckled. “I have to be at work, to do what I do. In the art, I try to be, but you can’t. So, when you do pull off a print that works, it’s a magic moment.”
From those magic moments, Dr. London has yielded some great prints. Two of them wound up in offices of friends and it was there that Dr. London attracted the gaze of the Island arts circle. Zita Cousen of Cousen Rose gallery called after seeing one and offered to represent him. His work now hangs in a gallery on Nantucket, on the walls of the Louisa Gould Gallery. Now that it is derby season, he can swing by the Old Sculpin Gallery, the most recent gallery to display his work, and check on his prints during his volunteer shifts at the weigh-in station on Memorial Wharf.
As he stood to leave the interview and head out for a day on the boat, Dr. London praised the offerings of fall. “Last night was ideal printing conditions,” he said. After a day of fishing, he came home with a bass to print. He tucked into his studio alone after dinner and set to work. “I had my bass, my beeper and the baseball game on — the three B’s.”