Radiating outward: From X-rays, a body of artwork

Radiologist Sue Summerton with examples of her art, based on X-rays and ultrasound images re-created by a graphic designer.

Where most radiologists look at an ultrasound and see a bladder indented by a very large prostate gland, Sue Summerton saw the Liberty Bell.

What to most might appear as a gallbladder with a couple gallstones were, to Summerton, the face and mile-high hair of Marge Simpson.

That bicornuate uterus? The letter "Y."

What's a doctor to do?

Summerton turned her unusual point of view into a business, Xray Artistry, reveling more, she says, in the laughs her work elicits than the revenue it generates.

"That little moment when they get what you're doing, that's a little drug for me," the 53-year-old Center City resident said recently, surrounded by her creations, inspired by radiology images she has seen that look like letters.

Summerton configures those "letters" into words and phrases - The Human Body Is the Finest Work of Art, The Doctor Is In, Oh Snap, among them - on canvases and smaller framed prints, and on cards and magnets. Other applications are planned.

The Mutter Museum gift shop carries a few of her pieces, and has just reordered more of her LOVE prints. But most sales come through medical conferences, attracting buyers from as far away as Kuwait and Australia. Pre-made and custom orders are available through xrayartistry.com.

"I am having so much fun," Summerton said, pausing to point out an image of Marge's husband, Homer Simpson, on a CT scan of an abdomen and pelvis.

She's astonished to find herself owning a small business. When she started collecting alphabetic radiology images 20 years ago, her goal was simpler.

"I wanted to make myself a poster someday to hang in my office of the letters A to Z," she said, recalling something similar made of butterfly wings that hung in the living room of her former home in Mullica Hill. "I never intended to be a business person."

Summerton, a graduate of Temple University's medical school, set off on the road to that inadvertent destination in 1992, when she was a resident at Einstein Medical Center, enjoying a specialty that indulged her passions for medicine and puzzle-solving.

Her discerning eyes started seeing letters among the broken bones, gas pockets, and other areas of interest on X-rays, ultrasounds, and magnetic resonance imagings.

An intrauterine device was a "T."

An eyeball, an "O." Two veins in a liver, a "V."

As for a "K," prepare to cringe: a broken finger.

Fast-forward to fall 2014, when Summerton, a divorced mother of three, was section chief of gastrointestinal radiology and director of medical student education at Einstein, as well as an associate professor at Jefferson Medical College.

The Radiological Society of North America, celebrating its 100th anniversary, called on radiologists to submit their most unusual or interesting cases, or examples of radiology art.

At the time, and even now, Summerton said, no one was doing anything with X-rays and letters. She reached into the file she had been building over the years and created a submission with images that spelled out: RSNA 100: A Century of Transforming Medicine.

The RSNA awarded it an honorable mention and displayed it at its annual conference in Chicago.

That got Summerton wondering who else might appreciate this atypical acuity of hers.

Naturally, other physicians did. Soon, she was doing custom orders for signs in doctor's offices. Then came requests for holiday gifts for the teachers of her friends' kids. LOVE is popular, as is the Liberty Bell bladder under which Summerton used other images to spell out Philadelphia.

Still not sure where to go with this, she enrolled in a one-night course at the Wharton Small Business Development Center at the University of Pennsylvania. In April of last year, a lawyer friend helped her with the paperwork to form Xray Artistry L.L.C., the name suggested by her sister, Ellen Schwartz. In June, Summerton returned to Wharton SBDC for a six-week course to develop a business plan.

"Nobody has said, 'Not a good idea, you shouldn't be doing this,' " Summerton said. However, she did abandon a plan to use original radiologic images in her work - Einstein lawyers she consulted said patient-consent forms allowed for the use of images for research and education, but not for art or profit.

Summerton turned for help to a radiology resident with graphic-design acumen to help re-create the letter images she had collected. Turns out that the end product was better than the original radiology images. For one thing, the graphic designs were less blurry. For another, none of the images she uses can jeopardize patient confidentiality in any way.

To devote more time to the new business, Summerton recently left Einstein and her teaching responsibilities there. She is now with Radiology Affiliates Imaging, a practice providing diagnostic services in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

With $17,000 in total sales, Xray Artistry has no full-time employees yet. Summerton uses three graphic artists and a printer on a contract basis, and relies on the willingness of friends and family to help with fulfilling orders.

Ultimately, she wants to take her art to children's hospitals, to help lower patients' anxiety by pointing out, for instance, "Your eyeball is the letter 'O'; isn't that cool?"

More immediately, she is off to Las Vegas in June, where she hopes to sell some of her art at the American Society of Radiologic Technologists educational symposium. In March, she takes her wares to Vienna for the annual conference of the European Congress of Radiology.

"Anything to make the medical office a less-scary place has to be a good thing," Andrew Graham, an orthopedic surgeon in Australia, wrote in an email about his attraction to Summerton's work. He has bought three large canvases for colleagues - each costing $285 and measuring 16 inches by 20 inches - and has just ordered another to butter up a surgeon "who is about to do a big nasty operation on my shoulder."

The father of two daughters who are artists, Graham said he respects "any specialist who does something 'different' to engage and relax their brain away from their normal work place."

Another fan is William Herring, who retired last year after 45 years at Einstein, where he was vice chairman of the Department of Radiology and director of the diagnostic radiology residency program.

Summerton is a "fantastic radiologist" with an expertise in several subspecialties, a rarity, Herring said.

"She takes her work seriously," he added, "but she has a wonderfully playful sense of humor."

And a new title besides doctor.

"I never considered myself an artist," Summerton said. "People are calling me that now."

dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466@dmastrull