As Xinyi Christine Zhang watched the COVID-19 death toll among healthcare workers rise this spring, she wanted to find a way to give solace — and thanks — to their families.
The 15-year-old teen, of South Brunswick Township, New Jersey, joined her church in commemorating members who had died of COVID-19. But she was driven to try to do more, something personal. “I thought there could be something more meaningful I could do for the families of the doctors who lost their lives fighting the pandemic,” said Christine.
A gifted artist, Zhang resolved to draw the fallen U.S. healthcare workers in colorful memorial portraits, distribute them to their families and post them on her website. She wanted the relatives to know that people appreciated those who were trying to help Americans heal while putting their own lives in jeopardy.
Zhang frequently draws portraits for her friends and knew memorial portraits are usually rather expensive. She realized that drawing front-line workers could actually help families and was a better use of her time than drawing her friends — whom she said she’d drawn “like 10 times already.”
According to KHN and The Guardian’s “Lost on the Frontline” project, more than 900 healthcare workers in the United States have died after helping patients battle the coronavirus. The pandemic overburdened many hospitals and led to shortages in protective equipment such as masks and gowns that endangered many of those assisting patients.
Zhang found her subjects through that project. She set up a website to upload her portraits and to let families request drawings of their loved ones. Her portraits are free and easily accessible online, she said.
She has finished and posted 17 portraits since she started in late April. Each one takes six to eight hours, and Zhang spreads that work out over a few days so as not to interfere with her school assignments. Using a close-up image as a reference, she first digitally sketches the proportions of the person’s face with a pencil and then adds unique colors to “really bring life to the portrait.”
Her largest obstacle is getting in touch with the families. She hopes more families will request portraits through her website so she can work with them from the beginning.
One person Zhang featured is Sheena Miles, a semiretired nurse from Mississippi who died of COVID-19 on May 1. Christine tracked down her son, Tom Miles, who expressed his gratitude on Facebook.
“When you’re going through a loss like that, like the loss of a mom, to get the email from out of the blue just kind of gives you a profound feeling that there are some good people in this world,” Tom Miles said in an interview. “For her to have such talent at such a young age, and that she really cares about people she doesn’t even know — she is what makes America what it is today.”
This kind of response is exactly what Zhang aims for — she wants the families to know that she is thankful for the work of their loved ones.
“Someone they don’t know personally, even a stranger, appreciates what their loved one has done,” she said.
The portraits may be a source of brightness for grieving families, said Zhang’s mother, Helen Liu.
“I hope that families who receive these portraits will have a feeling of hope that better times will come,” Liu said. “A memorial is something meaningful and permanent, and I feel her portraits capture the happiness that will forever be with them.”
She hopes to get additional requests for the memorials from families.
In addition to drawing, Christine is a member of the South Brunswick High School’s Science Olympiad team and helps build projects for competitions. She’s interested in exploring engineering or product design as a career. Anything related to building or creating, she said.
She plans to either major or minor in art in college. For now, she wants to continue this project throughout high school — hopefully with help from others who know how to create digital art. She has a form on her website where others with art experience can sign up to help out. She said they can also add “other heroes in our society, such as war veterans or firefighters.”
“There are so many people that need to be honored, but I can’t do it by myself,” Zhang said.
Published courtesy of KHN (Kaiser Health News), a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
No one can accuse Nurse of the Week Renee Wascovich White of “sitting back and taking it easy.” At the height of the New Jersey coronavirus outbreak, the family and psychiatric NP and mother of four worked as a nurse at a COVID field hospital. In her full-time position, though, White is a long-term assistant prosecutor who specializes in veterans and other defendants suffering from mental illness and other behavioral or cognitive problems.
When COVID hit her state, White swiftly volunteered her services as a nurse. “There was a need…There were a lot of sick patients,” she said.
In addition to her other duties, White–who never seems to have too much on her plate–was recently named President of the Ocean County NJ Bar Association. Superior Court Judge Marlene Lynch Ford, Ocean County’s assignment judge and White’s former boss at the prosecutor’s office summed it up: “They say if you want the job done right, you pick somebody who’s a busy person.” White spent years pursuing her dual occupations as NP and attorney, and only quit her ER job after New Jersey passed a law forbidding prosecutors to hold any form of outside employment. She mused, “It’s squeezing all of the juice out of the lemon — every little bit. I did 10 years in the emergency room, and you just never know when your card’s going to get punched. You want to maximize every second you can and do the best you can with what you have. Life is short.”
Her dedication to nursing drove White to join the Assistant Prosecutor’s Association, so she could pursue her efforts to change the law preventing assistant prosecutors from holding jobs outside the legal profession. Her hard work paid off in 2010 when then-Governor Jon Corzine signed the change into law. “I was probably the poster child because I was working for free as a nurse on purpose so they would change the law,’’ White noted.
For more details on Renee White, see Kathleen Hopkin’s full story on Asbury Park Press.
“Time management has been my best friend,” says Nurse of the Week Cailly Simpson. Although she left nursing in 2017 to study law at Rutgers, when the pandemic hit, the 26-year-old immediately felt an instinctive need to help. While continuing to work two days a week at a law firm and attending six hours of classes, the future malpractice lawyer wielded her time management skills and expanded her schedule to add four 12-hour shifts a week at NYU Langone Health.
Langone was familiar ground to Simpson, who worked there in the pulmonary and step-down units after receiving her nursing degree in 2016. The decision to make a two-month return to nursing—despite being just a few months away from finishing her legal studies—was not difficult. Simpson told NJ.com, “I felt like this was something that needed to happen. I went to nursing school with the thought process that I wanted to help people and take care of patients so that’s just kind of how my brain works.”
Simpson’s shifts as a float nurse were grueling, and she saw little of her boyfriend, family, or friends during her COVID nursing stint. However, revisiting her old profession has its rewards: “People truly want to help. They want to send these people home to their families. The attitudes with everyone I have come into contact with is what really has struck me. Everyone has every right to be completely terrified and not want to do this and complain about it. That was never ever the case. I never came across that. Everyone was always up and ready to help and wanted to be there giving it their all. Walking into that attitude made everything so much less scary.”
Summing up her eight-week combination of law studies with nursing on the COVID frontline, Simpson told the Rutgers Law newsletter, “It was hard to balance with finishing up law school but I would not have changed my decision for anything. I have truly enjoyed being back, even during such challenging times. The nurses were incredibly thankful for all the extra help they received. . . They are incredible individuals who have powered through this crisis with a smile on their faces the whole time and have continued to put patient care first.”
For a full story and interview with Cailly Simpson, visit NJ.com.
Following the May 25 death of George Floyd, nurses and other healthcare providers have been taking action not only to protest the deaths of Black citizens at the hands of police, but also to draw attention to the severe knock-on effects of racism on the health of Black communities, including an inordinate rate of mortalities from heart disease, diabetes, COVID-19, and other illnesses. Braving the risks of coronavirus, tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, nurses, who often see the fruits of social inequality at firsthand, have provided protestors with first aid as well as taking part themselves.
Nursing organizations have joined individual nurses in speaking out. American Nurses Association President Ernest J. Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN issued a moving statement, in which he remarked, “As a black man and registered nurse, I am appalled by senseless acts of violence, injustice, and systemic racism and discrimination. Even I have not been exempt from negative experiences with racism and discrimination. The Code of Ethics obligates nurses to be allies and to advocate and speak up against racism, discrimination and injustice. This is non-negotiable…. At this critical time in our nation, nurses have a responsibility to use our voices to call for change. To remain silent is to be complicit.”
“You clapped for us. We kneel for you.”
A mingling of professional training and empathy moved nurses such as Miami RN Rochelle Bradley to take a knee in remembrance of Floyd’s death. Bradley told CNN that “Kneeling here today for nine minutes and knowing that that’s how long George Floyd was on the ground with his airway compromised really bothered me as a nurse.”
For healthcare workers, the protests also reinforced their sense of unity in the era of COVID-19. In Boston, nurses who gathered to kneel in front of Brigham and Women’s Hospital carried a sign reading, “You clapped for us. We kneel for you.” One nurse interviewed, Roberta Biens, said, “I just want everybody to know they’re not alone, we’re with them and we’ll stand in front of them or behind them, wherever we need to be to support them.”
Minneapolis nurses appeared in force at the protests. One local ER nurse told the Insider, “COVID is a temporary and critical health crisis. Racism, through violence and disease, has been killing our patients since the hospital was built and will continue killing them long after COVID is gone.” And in an official statement, the Minnesota Nurses Association said, “Nurses continue to see the devastating effects of systematic racism and oppression targeting people of color in our communities. We demand justice for George Floyd and a stop to the unnecessary death of black men at the hands of those who should protect them.”
Hospitals in New York City united to stand behind the protests. The Gothamist scanned official Twitter posts and noted, “The six major hospital systems in the city–NYU Langone Health, Mount Sinai Health System, New York-Presbyterian, NYC Health + Hospitals, Northwell Health, and Montefiore Health System–have all posted publicly in support of the demonstrations…”
Weighing the Call to Civic Action Against Public Health Concerns
Medical practitioners are understandably divided about engaging in public assemblies while the coronavirus is still at large, but many believe the risk is worth taking. On June 8, World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “WHO fully supports equality and the global movement against racism,” but added, “As much as possible, keep at least 1 meter from others, clean your hands, cover your cough and wear a mask if you attend a protest.”
Asked by Health.com about the danger of public protests, Natalie DiCenzo, an Ob-Gyn resident in New Jersey, responded that “the risk of remaining silent and complacent in the face of racism and police violence is also deadly. I believe that with the proper precautions, these protests can be done relatively safely when it comes to COVID-19.”
Nearly 2,000 US “public health professionals, infectious diseases professionals, and community stakeholders” also expressed direct support for the national protests in a widely circulated June 4 letter (initiated by faculty from the University of Washington School of Medicine). Following a statement that “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19,” the letter recommended a series of safety measures to protect protestors from the virus. Among other issues it urged “that protesters not be arrested or held in confined spaces, including jails or police vans, which are some of the highest-risk areas for COVID-19 transmission, “ and that no use be made of “tear gas, smoke, or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for COVID-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection…”
On Twitter, nurses participating in the protests offered their own practical suggestions. A DC pediatric nurse told attendees to bring gloves, sunglasses or goggles for eye protection, and “an extra mask. Yours will get hot and sweaty so switching it out halfway through is smart. If you have a cloth mask throw a bandana on top too…” Following participation in protests, some nurses have also taken the step of self-quarantining for two weeks.
In the COVID-19 hotspot of New Jersey, nursing students can experience an unexpected supplement to their education. As a junior at Seton Hall, Cara Underwood has been a nursing assistant since December. When she started work on the cardiac unit at St. Peter’s University Hospital, life and work took place in a different world to the one she is in today.
At the end of February, though, Underwood’s floor was converted to a COVID-19 step-down unit for patients who had emerged from the ICU or whose symptoms were not acute enough to require intensive care. Since then, she has seen enormous changes. As the pandemic progressed, her workweek expanded from 24 hours to 40 hours, and her responsibilities have grown at an accelerated rate. With the progression of the virus, everything seems to be changing. As Cara explains, “No one on my floor has ever died during my shift and I worked a lot before this. Normally… they end up in the ICU and the ICU is where you see the deaths. But we’re just seeing it happen so quickly and also the ICU is so full that we’re starting to get those more severe cases on my floor.”
The rapid spread of the virus is providing the nursing junior with a crash course: “We’re really seeing the rapid deterioration in these older folks, you know, 60 and older where we’re just unable to keep their oxygen saturation up.” And working outside the ICU is no longer insulating her from encounters with code blues. Underwood remarks, “Over the weekend we had two deaths, which, like I said, I’d never seen one before as a nursing student. I mean, you have two back to back. It was unreal.”
She is also facing at firsthand the shortage of PPE, and a fellow nurse and her family tested positive for the virus and required hospitalization. Of the lack of PPE, Cara says, “It just seems unreal how that’s supposed to be protective for us. It’s scary. But we’re working with it. I mean, they say this is what we signed up for. I’m not sure if we signed up to be unprotected while we’re in the workplace, but we try to do our best.”
However, this trial
by fire has not succeeded in dampening her passion for nursing: “I’ve
always known I wanted to help people. And the truth is when, when I’m
in those rooms and I’m helping these people I know that it’s what
I’m supposed to do…. Before I worked in the hospital, [nursing]
was this thing that I was working towards, you know? Getting to be a
nurse and caring for people. And now that I’m on the battlefield,
so to speak, it’s more of a reality. It’s not the perfect nurse
life that I may have envisioned but I know I’m still supposed to be
For more on Cara
Underwood’s experience at St. Peter’s Hospital during the
pandemic, see her interview
with the Seatonian.
Nurse of the Week Lissa McGowan has treated countless premature infants during her time at New Jersey’s The Children’s Hospital NICU at Saint Peter’s University Hospital, but this is the first time she has treated both a father and his son.
New parents Renata Freydin and her fiancée David Caldwell
were understandably anxious when their baby Zayne Caldwell entered the world 10
weeks early on January 30.
Owing to his early entrance, little Zayne was admitted for
treatment in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at The Children’s Hospital at Saint
Peter’s University Hospital, while his parents waited for his condition
to stabilize. “It’s the hardest thing I ever had to do: to leave here
without him,” Freydin said. In their time with Zayne in the NICU, Freydin and
Caldwell took plenty of photographs of their baby to keep them company while
they awaited his arrival home.
A few days later, while perusing their photos, the new
parents fell into a discussion concerning Zayne’s family resemblance: did his
looks favor his mom, or did he look more like his dad? “Me and her [Freydin]
kept going back and forth: ‘He looks like me. No, he looks like me.’ So, I was
just like, ‘I’m gonna go get my baby book and settle this,’” Caldwell said.
But as they examined the photos, the matter of who Zayne
looked like was soon replaced by curiosity about a different similarity: the
nurse holding Zayne in one of the pictures bore a striking resemblance to the
nurse holding David Caldwell (who was also born prematurely) in one of his baby
photos! “I saw the picture and I knew right away it was nurse Lissa,”
Freydin said. “He didn’t believe me and said ‘no way, it’s not
possible.'” However, it was indeed possible; they soon discovered that the
nurse pictured with both babies—despite the 34-year passage of time—was Lissa
McGowan, who has worked at The Children’s Hospital for 38
years, remarked upon the unusual coincidence to My
Central Jersey, “We have so many babies who cross our paths, and we have
had many who say they had a relative here, but it’s never hit so close to home
where it is father and son, not for me.”
For more details on this multigenerational event, visit here.