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Arts & Extras: Blacksburg native seeks to understand pain, healing through art

Arts & Extras: Blacksburg native seeks to understand pain, healing through art


Virgil Wong’s mother faced a long battle with cancer and survived.

As she underwent surgery and chemotherapy for a tumor found behind her left eye, her son believed there had to be a better way for her to explain to doctors the pain she experienced, and for her to understand what to expect from treatments.

“Art can be this mechanism for sharing what’s going on,” he said

A Blacksburg native, Wong, 41, founded a company called Medical Avatar that follows through on that idea. An art exhibition in Perspective Gallery at Virginia Tech, “Medical Avatar: The Health Time Machine,” displays a series of portraits of patients with chronic illnesses. The portraits were made by using Wong’s blend of art and technology.

Wong worked with subjects in the Roanoke and New River Valley to create the images. The patients used apps for smartphones and tablets made by Medical Avatar to track their symptoms over a period of 30 weeks. Wong made sketches of the patients, who themselves chose colors and shapes to represent the pain and discomfort they experienced. The results were combined to create the prints for the show.

“The idea is to help both doctors and patients better understand what’s going on with their condition,” Wong said. “It’s very helpful in terms of clinical decision making.”

The apps have been developed in collaboration with hospitals and insurance companies. Wong noted that a free version of the Medical Avatar app can be downloaded at He described the image the app creates as a “selfie” that illustrates one’s health.

He cited Harvard University professor Elaine Scarry’s book “The Body in Pain” as an influence on his work. The book discusses the difficulties in expressing the experience of pain in words.

The show also demonstrates other Medical Avatar ventures. A life-sized computer graphics display that simulates a patient on an operating table, called “Body Interact,” allows medical students to run tests and try procedures in a video game-like environment. “It’s really about improving patient safety,” he said.

He noted wryly that a group of 7- to 9-year-old children who tried out the machine at Perspective Gallery kept killing the patient. “They were going for the entertainment value,” he said, but suggested that perhaps the experience would be inspirational as they grew more mature.

The show also displays a video showcasing the Health Cube, a full-body, three-dimensional scanner that Wong said is more effective and accurate than a scale. The cube creates a virtual avatar with exact body measurements, which can, for example, track the effectiveness of a diet and exercise regimen.

Funded by the university’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, “Medical Avatar: The Health Time Machine” will be on display in the gallery on the Squires Student Center’s second floor until Oct 18. The show will reopen Nov. 20 at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute in Roanoke and stay there through March 2015.

When the exhibit moves to Roanoke, a Health Cube device will be part of the show.

Wong’s family was one of the first Chinese families to immigrate to the New River Valley. His grandfather, the late Tei-pei Wong, a captain in the Tawainese navy, owned the land that is now Wong Park in Blacksburg. His father, Young-tsu Wong, was a history professor at Virginia Tech for about 30 years.

Now based in New York City, Wong returned briefly to Blacksburg to help set up the exhibition, curated by Robin Boucher, arts program director for the Department of Student Centers and Activities. Boucher was once Wong’s art teacher at Blacksburg High School, and plans for the show were set in motion after Boucher contacted him in New York more than a year ago.

Wong has given Boucher reason to be proud. He’s earned a bachelor’s of fine arts in illustration from Rhode Island School of Design, an master’s of fine arts in new media from Danube University in Austria, and a doctorate. in medical cognition and intelligent technologies from Columbia University Teachers College. Before he founded Medical Avatar, he was the web and multimedia director for Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

The Perspective show also contains a film Wong created, “Murmur,” that screened in the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, as well as a drawing Wong made for Boucher’s high school class in the early 1990s.

“I was trying to think of art exhibitions that would pique student interest,” Boucher said. Searching online, she found the video of an inspirational TED Talk about Medical Avatar that Wong gave in 2011. Impressed by the direction he’d gone with his talent, she got back in touch.

“He’s just this very approachable, very humble person,” Boucher said. “He’s exactly the kind of person I like working with.”

Wong has been conducting workshops with high school art students in the region, who are creating medical avatars of their own, to be included in the show at Carilion. The students were asked to make drawings showing their future selves if they continued unhealthy habits, as well as ones showing results of health-conscious behavior.

Perspective Gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday, noon-9 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m. For more information, call 231-4053 or visit

For more information about Wong, visit

On the Arts & Extras blog: Originally rescheduled because of rain, the 2014 Parks and Arts event planned for Mountain View Recreation Center in Roanoke will take place at noon Saturday. To learn more, visit

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