Doctor's play: Balancing miniature houses and medicine
Growing up, Patricia Eifel loved to paint, draw and play the piano. But once she started medical school, Eifel discovered she no longer had time to pursue these interests.
It was after she earned her M.D., finished her residency and began a fellowship that Eifel had a revelation.
“I decided I wasn’t really content. So in a very deliberate way, I started making time for my other passions. I like to call the result my philosophy of ‘parallel priorities,’ ” Eifel says with a smile.
Eifel continues to champion that viewpoint today as she balances her outside interests with her career as chief of service for Gynecologic Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson.
“I’m not going to let my outside interests go,” she emphasizes.
Dollhouse dreams One of Eifel’s major interests is a catch-all category she laughingly calls “etc.” That’s where her dollhouse fits in.
As a child, the native Chicagoan was fascinated by the Thorne Miniature Rooms, a permanent collection of 68 detailed models housed in the Art Institute of Chicago. Eifel loved to visit the collection with her mother, and she dreamed of someday making a dollhouse for her own daughter.
“I didn’t end up having any daughters, but I finally got a granddaughter. That was my incentive to get started,” she laughs.
Eventually she purchased a kit and built and furnished a Victorian-style dollhouse for her granddaughter. It was a much-appreciated Christmas gift.
“When my granddaughter’s friends came to visit, she’d turn it around so they wouldn’t damage it,” Eifel recalls.
Eifel enjoyed crafting the tiny house so much that seven years ago, she decided to make one for herself. That opened up a whole new world: furnishing and decorating her own miniature home.
The world in miniature “I’ve learned there’s a whole industry around miniatures and that there are true artisans working in this field. People make tiny pieces of silver and pottery and crystal and even food. You name it, someone makes it,” Eifel says. “There’s some extraordinary work being done.”
Eifel’s real love is constructing miniature furniture in the standard 1:12 scale, where 1 inch in miniature is equal to 1 foot in reality. For the past three years, she’s treated herself to semi-annual two-day workshops for miniature furniture makers at the Chicago International Miniatures Show and Philadelphia Miniatura.
“It’s very intensive, but it’s also very satisfying,” she says. “I’ve always loved doing things that involve working with my hands, and there’s something kind of magical about doing this work and ending up with a finished piece.”
Beyond face value Eifel’s come to realize that many of the skills that are crucial in her job, like visual acuity and attention to detail, also are valuable when it comes to making miniatures. And vice versa.
“I believe that any talent you acquire has value beyond the obvious,” she says. “All your physical, mental and creative skills have importance beyond just the actual activity.”
Eifel has found that many of her patients are intrigued by her miniature-making and other hobbies, which include music, exercise and photography.
“It gives us things to talk about other than their illness, and that helps make their situations less threatening and more normal,” she remarks.
Eifel’s outside interests offer welcome breaks from caring for patients, conducting research and holding leadership positions in professional organizations.
“We all need a place to escape,” Eifel says. “If I add up the total amount of time I spend on my hobbies, it’s not that much. But for me, they’re an important source of relaxation and contentment.”
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s bimonthly employee publication.