CHICAGO — Nurses experienced things they could never explain.
People talking, then dead. Replacing family members by holding the hand of the dying. Losing the ability to comfort through a smile.
To process these moments, some picked up a pencil, or a paintbrush.
A new exhibit at the International Museum of Surgical Science, “Nurses’ Relaxation and Renewal Through the Arts,” features art by medical workers, including some who used artwork to process what they experienced treating COVID-19 patients. The Gold Coast museum’s exhibit was supposed to open last April. Scuttled because of the pandemic, it is now open through May 23.
One of the artists is Maribel Huerta. Ever since she was a trauma patient, lying in intensive care after being shot in the head at age 15, she knew she wanted to be a nurse.
Half a lifetime later, she found herself in her dream job in an intensive care unit at Advocate Christ Medical Center. Last year, her role shifted to treating the sickest COVID-19 patients.
On days off, in a basement and isolated from her family to keep them safe, she felt alone with her thoughts. So she went to a closet and dug out her pen and drawing pad.
“It really helped, because instead of keeping it in, I put it on paper,” she said.
“We can’t really speak about it, the stuff we’re going through,” Huerta said. “It was so other people could see what we’re going through. I wanted something powerful, so people can really comprehend how bad it is.”
The two-room exhibit features a range of topics and mediums — drawings, paintings, photography, a quilt. The artist statements mention efforts to record favorite memories or inspiration. An acrylic artwork of a cup of tea noted how sipping tea can help nurses relax after a shift; another piece, a linocut print of an anatomical heart, was inspired by caring for cardiovascular patients in an intensive care unit.
Creating art can be a way to process emotions or situations and can help reduce stress, said Tony Amberg, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Throughout the pandemic, he led group courses to teach colleagues breathing techniques and meditation; more than 2,700 hospital workers attended.
“The first thing about creative outlets is one, it accesses parts of our brain that can’t be reached by talking,” Amberg said. “And we are very verbal in medicine, and a lot of what’s happening for people is emotional.”
“Words don’t always capture what’s happening to us inside,” he said. “Instead of things being done to us, we are doing. We are making. We are putting something new out there.”
For Huerta, and others who expressed similar sentiment in their artist statements, creating art helped destress from or process the busy nights as a nurse. For her, as for many intensive care unit staffers, the COVID-19 pandemic brought an entirely new kind of work. She was used to treating patients she knew how to help, like someone who gets in a car crash on their way to work.
“With the COVID patient, it’s like grandma or your aunt who just went to the store, and all of a sudden this virus is taking over their body and she’s passing away slowly,” Huerta said. “It’s also an unexpected death, kind of like trauma, but it was slower. So we really got to know these people.”
COVID-19 sent patients to their ward who were very sick for reasons experts still did not fully understand.
“We had no idea what we were dealing with,” she said. “It was just trying to fix what the patient already had. But because there’s no actual treatment, it was just trying to fix whatever symptoms they had.”
For those first few months, Huerta found herself living alone in the basement apartment she had shared with her 13-year-old son. He lived upstairs with her mother; she stayed away from them to protect them.
On her days off from work, she was unable to see her friends or family members, including her niece and nephew who didn’t understand why the aunt they usually saw every day was now untouchable. Faced with free time, she pulled out her drawing pad.
“I’ve always drawn, ever since I was I think in junior high,” she said. “The older we get, we lose touch with our creative side.”
The first thing she drew was herself, wearing a respirator. She bought the respirator online after her brother, who paints cars, told her that it could protect her while inhaling. The pencil drawing shows her wearing the respirator and a Batman cap. Her eyes have coronavirus spores.
She did not, she said, feel like a superhero.
“We just felt hopeless,” she said. “We were trying everything. We couldn’t save everybody.”
Knowing that patients were unable to see family, they tried, she said, to become that family for them.
“The worst part was coming back to work and not knowing if the patient you took care of the night before was still going to be there or not,” she said. “It was horrible to watch, because these people, they’d be getting better and all of a sudden, they turn worse.”
They found creative ways to bring human contact into a world filled with protective gear and isolation.
Once, knowing patients could not feel the warmth of her hand beneath double gloves, she removed a glove. She held the patient’s hand, a woman who reminded her of her grandmother. The patient eventually died.
As the pandemic continued, Huerta kept drawing. She painted. She also returned to photography, something she was unable to do when the state shut down and most people stayed inside.
She envisions picking up her pencil again for another self-portrait. She’s not sure exactly what it will be, but the word “relief” comes to mind.
“I’m envisioning almost like the same picture that I drew, but without the respirator, and something with the vaccine,” she said. “Instead of the coronavirus eye, it’ll be something brighter, like a future, finally hope.”