In October 1989, photographer Nuccio DiNuzzo was diagnosed with chronic leukemia. Doctors offered two choices: DiNuzzo could continue treatment with drugs, which might add five years to his life, or he could pursue a bone marrow transplant in an attempt to rid his body of the cancerous cells.

There was no medical guarantee with either option, but DiNuzzo’s younger brother Fabio was found to be an acceptable marrow donor, and three months later DiNuzzo was admitted to the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.

Knowing he might never leave the hospital, DiNuzzo was determined to record the ordeal for posterity and peace of mind. “I was interested in showing the progression–or digression, if you will–from the way I looked when I walked in through all the stages of the bone marrow transplant,” DiNuzzo says. “I knew my body would go through some transformation and I wanted to document that as an artist.”

The visible physical and mental changes are jarring and unforgettable. Twenty black-and-white photographs record the 27-year-old’s metamorphosis, chemotherapy robbing DiNuzzo of his hair and control of his body and prolonged confinement stripping him of his dignity.

“I almost used the camera as a tool to not think about what I was going through,” he says. “I used it to look through so that way it wouldn’t feel like it was affecting me directly.”

He used a single camera and lens (no flash), a full-length mirror on the bathroom door, a clamp, and a self-timer to tell his story. The 10-by-12-foot sterile hospital room jammed full of medical equipment served as a surrealistic backdrop for DiNuzzo’s slow-motion descent into hell and his subsequent reincarnation.

“As a photographer you go into a lot of sensitive situations. I’d taken pictures of patients with leukemia. I’ve shot people with AIDS, but I wasn’t part of it. So all of a sudden someone says you’re the patient here and I just didn’t want to believe it,” he says. “The whole experience awakened me to the fact that a camera can’t shield you from anything.”

There was a two-week stretch where he didn’t take any pictures. “Mentally I couldn’t do it,” he says. “I was having nightmares about my camera. I dreamed that I couldn’t shoot; couldn’t pick up a camera; couldn’t load the film; couldn’t focus.”

DiNuzzo also kept a diary throughout the ordeal, and his words reflect the intensified emotions of a man poised to accept death but praying for life. “There is no privacy here,” he wrote in one entry. “No place to hide and be alone. No escape from the ugly reality. Whatever I look at is reminiscent of the purpose why I’m here.”

“My feeling at times was that I was buried in this room alive,” he says now. “I thought I would die in there.”

Two years after the transplant DiNuzzo is enjoying a relatively normal life, but it will be another three years before he is officially “cured.” His blood is tested every four months; the cancerous cells have shown no signs of returning.

“For a long time I couldn’t bring myself to look at the work,” DiNuzzo said. “I went away from it because I wanted to erase that time of my life. I look at the pictures now as someone else. I’m very detached.”

DiNuzzo’s photos, along with a selection of his diary entries, are currently on exhibit at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ultimately, DiNuzzo thinks, they offer hope for transplant patients and donors.

“The exhibit really isn’t about me,” he says. “It’s up to increase the awareness of bone marrow donors. I was lucky to have a brother who was a perfect match, but there are others who don’t have that.”

The photos, along with work by New York photographer Marc Asnin, will be on display at the New Works Gallery, in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Architecture and Art Building, 901 W. Harrison, first floor, through February 28. There’s an opening reception from 5 to 7 tonight; regular viewing hours are 10 to 5 Monday through Friday. Admission is free; for information, call 996-5412.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nuccio DiNuzzo.