Cystic fibrosis through the lens of an artist: Finding hope in a seemingly hopeless situation

Joy is available even in trauma. Don’t lose hope.

That’s what artist Dylan Mortimer hopes to convey through his art, depicting his personal struggles with cystic fibrosis. He was diagnosed as an infant, and now at the age of 40, he has been through two double lung transplants.

Mortimer made it to 37 until he needed his first double lung transplant. “After recovery I felt the best I had in my entire life,” he says. But eventually there was an antibody rejection in the new lungs. So from June 2018 to November 2018, his lung function plummeted from 97% to 20%, and he got listed again for needing a lung transplant.

His donor came from an unlikely source.

A nurse in Kansas City who had seen his art and knew his story contacted him. She had a cousin who had just passed away, and the family wanted to donate his lungs to him. “I couldn’t imagine it would be a match,” he recalls. It’s extremely rare for donors to be matched this way. But he got a call from the physician the next day, saying it was a complete match.

Art exhibit up until April 2020

Mortimer’s art will be on display in the Medical Museum Gallery B (Elevator F, Level 8) of UI Hospitals & Clinics until April 17, 2020. The exhibit is organized by UI Hospitals & Clinics Project Art with funding by Volunteer Services.

In April 2019 he had his second double lung transplant. Rehab was easier after his second transplant surgery. He walked the very next day and could jog after a few weeks. Just this past weekend, he competed in a 10K run. “To breathe at all, to move like this, is incredible,” he says.

“It’s such a gift—not one I earned or deserved,” he adds. “It’s too humbling for words.”

His artwork

This is art that really needs to be seen in person to fully appreciate. “The glitter in my art, it’s so bright and vibrant,” Mortimer explains. “It’s almost too much to look at, and that’s sort of the point … I’m coming out of this trauma and staring at this beautiful light, and it almost blinds you, but you can’t look away.”

The use of glitter and bright colors bring a light-hearted shimmer over serious topics like the constant struggle for air, lung failure, and transplant surgery. “I use glitter as a stark contrast to a really ugly, nasty disease,” he says.

Mortimer talking with cystic fibrosis researchers

He focuses on finding hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. “I’m honest about the despair and darkness [of CF], but also try to be hopeful in that, to keep pressing along, even when you don’t think there’s a way out,” he explains.

Collaborating with cystic fibrosis researchers

Mortimer met with UI Health Care cystic fibrosis researchers this week to discuss his artwork, his experience as a patient, and the research being conducted at the UI. Afterward, they “dabbed away cystic fibrosis” to honor the progress research is making, followed by a tour of the research lab.

Research at the UI has helped increase the lifespan of patients with CF, with the prospect of even greater gains coming from newly approved drugs that may benefit the majority of people with CF.

Read more about cystic fibrosis research at the University of Iowa.

Dabbing away CF

See more photos of his exhibit at uihc.org/about-dylan-mortimer.