J. Jordan Bruns first noticed signs that something was wrong with him when he began college at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Despite following a healthy vegetarian diet and running five miles a day, he was gaining an inexplicable amount of weight.
"I was fifty pounds heavier than I am now," he recalls, with a "really bulbous face and I had a buffalo hump on the back of my neck. But I had really skinny arms."
Then, when he got in to the MFA art program at Indiana University, he found he was struggling with memory and focus - so much so, that he got put on academic probation. So Bruns went to IU's health clinic, where he tested positive for Cushing's disease.
The tumor on the pituitary gland over-stimulates the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. The cortisol level for a normal, healthy person is between one and ten. Bruns' was over 400.
"I was very unhappy with the way I looked, and my memory was terrible," he says. "So when it finally got resolved, I had some sort of depression issues just because I felt so terrible. I thought this was going to be something I'd have to live with the rest of my life!"
But the rarity of his illness qualified him a study at the National Institutes of Health, where he underwent a $1 million procedure free of charge.
"Apparently it's more prevalent in women and dogs and horses," Bruns explains. "The actual probability of me having it, I think we calculated to two in a million men."
Life after brain surgery
Bruns' lengthy yearlong recovery was due to the fact that his body had been addicted to cortisol for nearly a decade, and the doctors had to wean him off.
"It was essentially being a heroin addict and then removing all your heroin," says Bruns. "So I was taking medication, and during that time period my pituitary gland, which had been asleep for nine years because the tumor was taking over, was slowly starting to wake up again and do its job."
Now that he's healthier, he says he feels forever indebted to NIH. That's why earlier this year Bruns, who is a resident artist at Glen Echo Park in Maryland, started a fundraiser for the Children's Inn at NIH. Last May, five Glen Echo artists painted in the bumper-car pavilion while the Washington Conservatory of Music performed jazz. The event raised $10,000 for art therapy programs at the Children's Inn. This year, he says the money will go toward music therapy.
"I didn't have to pay for my surgery, so this is my way of saying thank you," Bruns says. "They do a really wonderful job at the Children's Inn of making the environment friendly for kids. I can see myself, if I was a younger kid, really appreciating that kind of opportunity to not be in a very stark hospital!"
Bruns hopes he won't wind up in such a place, either, because he does run the risk of losing his pituitary gland if the tumor returns.
"As of now, I'm off hormone replacements," he says. "I don't wake up and go through withdrawals of feeling sick and nauseous all the time. But you know there's always the chance that it could come back, but it's less now than ever."
As for how Bruns' bout with Cushing's disease has affected his art, he says he's always been fascinated by the cycle of destruction and rebirth. And now that theme takes on a whole new meaning in his artworks, many of which depict sweeping, almost surreal stone buildings, often crumbling and falling down, from the inside and out.
"You know, destruction: I think I was doing it to myself during that time period," he says. "But also the rebirth is still there. So there's always a glimmer of hope, and some people walk into the studios saying, 'Oh, it's very post-apocalyptic. It's very depressing.' And I'm like, 'Well, yeah, and that's part of what life is.' If things die, things are reborn. And I think that cycle is true to me."
[Music: "Rush of Blood to the Head (Instrumental)" by Coldplay from Rush of Blood to the Head (Instrumental)]
Photos: J. Jordan Bruns