Last Updated: November 4th, 2019
Traditionally trained emergency room doctor turned palliative medicine specialist finds his own healing beyond the paradigm of Western medicine and within the essence of art and creativity
Rockpeople: Beyond Chester Creek
[Canukshuk Artworks Publishing]
“I decided to stop praying and instead consider my whole life a prayer. Now all my moments are sacred, it’s more time effective, and my knees aren’t so sore.”
“Sacred Moments” excerpt from Rockpeople – Beyond Chester Creek
The physician/artist fondly known as the “Rock Doc” has just released Rockpeople – Beyond Chester Creek, the sequel to his debut sold-out book Rockpeople: The Chester Creek Inuksuit Anthology.
Dr. Joel Carter’s first book, an introspective collection of words and photographs, explored the meaning of the inuksuks he built along Chester Creek in Duluth, Minnesota, on his daily walks seeking respite from his work as an emergency room physician.
Inuksuks are stone structures that aid survival and communication for the Inuit people in the forbidding Arctic. For Carter, building these structures offered an emotional and physical release that helped him find balance in a world replete with challenges and tragedy.
In his newly published sequel, Carter explores with words, with rockpeople, and with photographs how to live meaningfully and serenely in the face of brokenness and the end-of-life challenges every human being must face. Using broken shards of rock to balance and build beautiful rock structures mirrored his discovery that facing the broken fragments of life creatively is the essence of healing.
Published eight years after his first collection, Rockpeople – Beyond Chester Creek reflects the spiritual journey Carter embarked on that resulted in his becoming a Harvard-trained pain and palliative medicine specialist who now uses complex pain management strategies as well as storytelling to aid dying patients and their families.
The book explores how the broken parts of life come together in families and the depth and breadth of love that only the end of life—and often the beginning of a new life—can reflect for us all.
Carter comments, “The ‘broken parts’ of the human journey are the most important aspects; they make everything else possible for one’s own healing experiences and the compassionate caring of others. Helping people to die gracefully, lovingly, adds a new chapter to my journey with rockpeople.”
Carter’s rock sculpture recently earned a People’s Choice award in the 4th annual Edina public art event in Edina, Minnesota.
Duluth’s former Rock Doc shares his creative rockpeople internationally
“I’ve learned as much and maybe more about healing from the rocks than from Harvard,” says palliative care specialist and former emergency room physician Joel Carter about his education.
It’s an unusual statement to hear from a doctor, but as you learn more about Carter’s background in healing, you begin to understand his passion for people and understanding their core illness is what makes him so successful in helping people.
In this case, helping often means the tough act of navigating patients and families through terminal illness and complex symptoms. Often one of the darkest times of one’s life, Carter draws from personal experiences to help his patients heal.
Carter knows firsthand what it is like to face dark times. In 2003, he shared his spiritual journey that took him from Indian sweat lodges to ruins of the Nazi death camp where his ancestors lost their lives in a book titled Rockpeople: The Chester Creek Inuksuit Anthology.
At the time he was an emergency room physician in Duluth. Soon after, he was awarded the Bush Medical Fellowship by the Archibald Bush Foundation to pursue interests in end of life medicine and physician leadership. He completed his fellowship at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and transitioned to caring for the dying.
“I think I outgrew the practice of emergency medicine,” Carter says of the change. My scope and interest within medicine expanded beyond pain and symptoms of terminal conditions to shape-shifting experiences at the end of life to provide opportunities for healing experiences to emerge for patients and their families.”
Part of this process was looking within to learn a new way to heal—by connecting the soul to self. To do this, Carter began creating elaborate, artistically stunning inuksuits or simply rockpeople. These creative creations began springing up along Chester Creek in Duluth, henceforth the nickname Rock Doc.
Oftentimes, these pieces were quickly vandalized but this didn’t stop Carter from finding comfort and closure within these creations. Today, he works tirelessly to help others find closure and comfort in perhaps the most challenging moment of their life—learning they have a terminal illness.
“Finding the right balance of treatment is similar to mixing a good pot of chili,” Carter says. “It is about finding the right mix. While the training, mentors I’ve had along the way and clinical experience were all key, it is more than that.” For Carter, it is also about taking a creative approach in this moment by using storytelling and other forms of art and creativity to find the best balance of treatment and healing for the patient.
This idea of moving from “head to heart” was first discovered while building rockpeople along Chester Creek. Today, he’s taken his rockpeople on the road to Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and New Zealand.
Carter shares the lessons found within the rocks along with his journey in helping people to die gracefully in his latest book Rockpeople: Beyond Chester Creek. These lessons are accompanied with images of Carter’s rockpeople he’s created.
In one lesson called “emergence,” Carter says “Life isn’t so much about growing up and out, as it is about emerging within.” While a single, simple thought, the statement boldly states the need to understand one’s self and make the most of what matters.
For Carter, this is about more than practicing medicine. It’s about his family—he and his wife and two children currently live in Minneapolis—his new career as a palliative care specialist, his work as an artist and storyteller, and it’s also about helping people die with dignity and finding ways to engage in the “essence of the moment” versus things.
image: eaghra (CC-BY-SA)