Narcolepsy, light and art: Multifaceted medical student turns challenge into inspiration

July 20, 2023
Smiling woman leans on a torso-sized circle that is filled with blue, darker blue and black lights.
Third-year College of Medicine student Emily Scircle with her creation made from medical waste. She plans to put it up for auction to raise money for people who need but can't afford cataract surgery. Photo by Sarah Pack

At one point, as she was preparing to create an eye-shaped work of art that would use discarded glass medical containers and light, Emily Scircle had to shower with her shoes on. The medical student’s Charleston bathtub was full of vials she was soaking in Dawn and bleach to make sure they were completely clean.

“I didn't know if any broken glass was on the floor. When I drained the tub, I made two little feet holes between the vials. I took a shower, and then I filled the bathtub right back up.”

Bathtub filled with glass medical vials and water. 
Vials soaking in Scircle's bathtub. Photo provided

It was a little inconvenient but worth it for Scircle, who plans to auction off the resulting piece to raise money for people who can’t afford cataract surgery. “Eye surgeries are one of the most effective surgeries. It has a very low complication rate, a very high success rate.”

The Lexington native, a third-year student in the College of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, is used to stepping around obstacles. Scircle was diagnosed with narcolepsy during her freshman year at Clemson University. It’s a rare condition that causes excessive sleepiness. It can be treated with medication and behavior modifications. 

The diagnosis and her efforts to understand how to live with it inspired Scircle to study the effects of light on students’ sleepiness and health. That led to a TEDx talk at Clemson called “Artificial light is wrecking your life.” 

“Before the lightbulb, we rose with the sun, were guided at night by the stars, ate dinner by the fire and read by candlelight. Today, we spend more than 90% of our day indoors, away from unfiltered sunlight and exposed to artificial lights that are ultimately wrecking our lives,” she said in her opening.

“Your body is at a constant war against your smart phone, TV, computer and those harsh fluorescent lights that are at work and school.”

Light clearly fascinated Scircle. After studying Spanish, international health, hospital administration and psychology at Clemson, she wanted to pursue that interest. So she earned a Master of Science degree in Lighting at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. And she was no average student. While she was there, she won first place in the Illuminating Engineering Society Philadelphia DesignWithLight competition.

Woman in blue tshirt with her hair up uses soldering equipment. 
Scircle working on the early stages of her project. Photo provided

But Scircle has always had a lot of interests. As a teenager, she competed in pageants and did an internship in a hospital emergency room. As a college student, she served as an undergraduate member of The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, worked with a nonprofit helping people in Honduras with eye problems – and, on the more active side, joined Clemson’s waterski team.

But Scircle always knew she wanted to become a doctor. Her plan is to become a neuro-ophthalmologist, an eye surgeon who helps patients with cataracts, corneal and retinal issues, loss of vision, double vision and more. It was the interest that rose above all of the other options she was considering.

“The moment that I got the call that I got accepted into MUSC, it was like all the unknown in my stomach just like went away,” she said.

But once she started school, its rigors left Scircle looking for another outlet – a way to express herself. She decided that a new work of art featuring light was the answer. “That's like the truth of why I made it, just so that I could do something that I have control in. That was kind of like a healing project to me.”

She wanted to incorporate her professional interest as well. “I want to make something related to medicine.”

And Scircle wanted her work to say something about an environmental challenge for the health care field. “Medical waste is like a big issue. We produce a lot of it.”

So she reached out to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to ask about how to use discarded medical equipment safely and legally. That led her to a place most people have never heard of but that would prove vital for her project.

Red medical waste containers in what looks like a warehouse. 
The medical waste facility where Scircle got used medical vials that had been sterilized. Photo provided

“I went to the Trilogy Medical Waste Facility in North Charleston. I said, ‘I'm a medical student. I have a weird request. I'm doing a little personal project of mine as a hobby. I make lights. Can I have some of your medicine vials? Can I have your trash?’” she said, laughing.

The answer was yes. Scircle wanted medical vials that she believed could become something new through art. The vials had already been autoclaved, or sterilized, at the North Charleston facility before she had access to them. 

But getting them ready for her art project was a long process. “There are so many different sizes. I had over 800 vials,” Scircle said. “The most time-consuming part was taking the labels off the vials and getting a tiny screwdriver and popping them open.”

Glass vials some with blue lids are lit up in purple. 
A closeup of some of the hundreds of vials Scircle used to create her work of art. Photo by Sarah Pack

Scircle said the project took a year. “But I knew I wanted to shine a light on medical waste. We can't turn a blind eye,” she joked, referring to her project’s shape.

This summer, she completed her piece. It’s a circular work, as big as her torso, featuring rows of medical vials that can light up in different colors. Its many parts symbolize all of the people who make medical care possible, Scircle said. “It really encapsulates everyone in the health care system from start to finish. Interpersonal, everyone.”

Sometimes, it also encapsulates people who are a little different. People like Scircle. “My narcolepsy is a huge part of my overall life story and pathway into research and medicine and lighting,” she said. 

Scircle, who serves as vice-president of the MUSC Alliance for DisAbility Advocacy, hopes her story also reminds people of the value that differences may bring. “I am a big advocate for persons with disabilities, which is why I hope that the light can be auctioned off for proceeds for those with vision disabilities, and the money raised will be used toward funding procedures.”

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