Some people might think that photography is a fairly sedentary hobby, but not the way Terrell Van Aken, M.D., attacks it.
Although the medical director of NorthBay Bridges, a palliative care practice, disavows any claim of a being a hard-core hiker, he does travel around Northern California, lugging some 40 pounds of Nikon gear to find the perfect spot and patiently wait for the perfect light. The result: Dramatic vistas that capture the heart and the imagination.
For two years, Dr. Van Aken’s scenic views—from frost-capped mountains to brilliant fall colors—have been featured on the pages of the NorthBay Hospice & Bereavement calendar, which is distributed annually to doctors, staff, volunteers and families in the bereavement program. He has also donated selected images as auction items at NorthBay fundraisers to support Hospice & Bereavement, a program which is near and dear to his heart.
“He brought in a number of his photos one day, and spread them out on a big table,” remembers Veronica Wertz, NorthBay Hospice & Bereavement volunteer coordinator. “He wanted staff to pick out the best ones for him to donate to the Solano Wine & Food Jubilee auction. I looked at the photos and realized they’d make a fantastic calendar. Not only does this showcase his talent, but it shows how compassionate this doctor is. He loves his patients, he loves this program,” she says. “It just puts it all in perspective.”
Dr. Van Aken came to Solano County in 1987 as a family practice physician, with an office on the edge of Vacaville’s Leisure Town. As his patient population aged, be began to specialize in geriatric issues. That eventually evolved into taking care of patients in their final days.
So when an opportunity to join the NorthBay Health at Home program came up, he realized it was a good fit for his practice style, and it would be an opportunity to work with hospice. Now in the role of medical director, he’s been able to add a palliative care program, which helps critically ill patients who are not ready for hospice make quality of life decisions about their care.
It’s a rewarding job, but certainly comes with its unique share of stress.
Photography has turned out to be a brilliant escape. “It allows me to refocus my energy on the scene at hand,” he says. “It’s a complete distraction, a cleansing.”
Earlier this year, Dr. Van Aken traveled to Horsetail Falls in Yosemite, just east of El Capitan. During the last two weeks of February, the sun can hit the falls just right so it glows a brilliant orange at a certain time of day.
Dr. Van Aken was packed side to side with scores of other photographers for hours on Valentine’s Day also hoping to get “The Shot.”
“We got skunked,” he grins. “At sunset, you should have seen everybody leave.”
But patience is what it takes, and he’s always ready to try again. Some of his favorite places include Yosemite, Big Sur, Point Reyes and San Francisco. The Michigan native also loves to photograph his home state, especially Porcupine Mountain State Park, which displays spectacular fall colors.
Dr. Van Aken became interested in photography after his father died, when he realized his family didn’t have much in the way of photographs. He wanted to work with old negatives, so he started with a traditional darkroom. He switched to digital in 2002, and hasn’t looked back.
“It’s amazing what you can do on your computer, in your own home,” he says. “Photography is something nearly everyone can try. It’s very accessible.”
It also provides a great incentive for getting outside and enjoying nature, he said. “I’m trying to expand my horizons. I want to get back up to Lake Shasta and Mount Lassen.”
While he’s shot a number of air shows (he’s a big fan of aircraft), he tends to gravitate toward nature: Majestic trees, sunlight dappled creeks, flower-drenched hillsides and, of course, water falls.
“His photographs are very beautiful, very peaceful,” says Wertz. “When I look at his photos, it’s usually a place I want to go. But if I can’t go there, I just let the photo pull me in. I can feel the serenity, and can practically hear the water crashing down. It takes me away.”
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