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Why your doctor may be quilting and your nurse may have a podcast

Dr. Ricardo Nuila, a physician in Houston, had already begun writing a book when the pandemic began. He felt lucky to have something to escape to when he felt powerless. A typewriter sits with a page typed out that says "Chapter One". He says, "One day you might hear your area is surging, or that someone you've known since childhood is in the ICU."
 

Many hospitals are seeing a surge of new COVID-19 patients, which means longer hours, increased anxiety and burnout among health care workers. Comic artist and physician Dr. Grace Farris asked fellow doctors, nurses and others in medicine how they are coping with the prolonged stress. Many say their creative outlets provide solace and community to help them through.

Grace Farris sits at her computer. COVID data charts line the walls. In the next panel, Farris is suited up in COVID protective gear looking at a patient who says, "He took ivermectin." She narrates: For many health care providers, the past two years have been a series of COVID-19 surges. The "surge" periods involves long hours, extra shifts and heightened anxiety.
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Illustrated pictures of an exercise weight, a cake, a parent reading to a child and a laptop screen are shown. Grace says, "Between the surges, health care workers recharge via the normal stuff: exercise, binge-watching TV shows, hobbies, family time. Recently though, nearly two years into the pandemic, I've seen more colleagues turn to their creative passions to find solace."
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A map of the U.S. and Canada shows dots in various locations. As a hospital-based doctor myself, I know the emotional toll that comes with rolling COVID surges, so I wanted to know more about these creative practices. I interviewed colleagues to find out how their creative outlets provide a refuge during the pandemic. In other words: When the surges don't stop, how do you find comfort?
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In Skowhegan, Maine, family doctor Dr. Rachel Criswell has found renewal in her quilting group. A woman sits with a quilt in progress, patterns fill the background where she sits. "I find quilting gives me a space to let my mind roam, helping me to think through more complex diagnosis," she says.
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An ink well and pen sits amid a pile of papers. Kate Wiker Bradley is an acute care speech language pathologist in central New Jersey. She sees her writing group as a welcome escape from her health care role. "It's a total brain break," she says. "I completely forget the hospital." She says it also helps her to feel like she has an identity other than a "health care hero".
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The narration continues as stitched words on three embroidery frames: Julia Losito is an ICU nurse in Hershey, Pa. She finds joy (and a sense of control) in embroidery. "I feel like embroidery is an oxygen mask for me, aka a form of self-care," she says.
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One more embroidery panel features the following stitched narration. "If I'm able to care for myself, I'm a better caregiver and advocate for my patients. I have more to offer." Embroidery threads trail down the frame.
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A quilt, embroidery panel, book, and photographs lie underneath the narration. Some people discovered their craft during the pandemic and others simply embraced their pre-pandemic creative outlets.
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Pediatric ICU nurse Hui-wen Sato sits at a computer with a charging cable that is hooked up to an I.V. bag labeled "I.V. Creativity." She says, "At this stage of the pandemic, I am absolutely becoming more active in my creative work." Hui-wen says that now that her kids are back in in-person school she is working on her first book.
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Dr. Lucie Mitchell holds a paint brush at an easel. Mitchell is a spine specialist. She has felt as if her creative efforts "went into overdrive" during the pandemic. She says, "This was the first time I have felt my profession was in jeopardy. We were expendable. My creative work allowed me to escape the anxiety and loss felt throughout the pandemic."
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Nuila sits at a computer with his hand on his temple. He says, "I couldn't do much to address these problems. But I could work on problems in my book, which helped even things out emotionally." Paint brushes lie next to an open book and a stethoscope. For some, it's not just about making art, it's being in a community of other health workers pursuing their passions outside the hospital.
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In Santa Rosa, Calif., Dr. Mark Chapireo works as a hospitalist and produces a podcast. He sits at a microphone and says, "My creative work has been crucial to my work in health care. I've learned how to be a better advocate and built an amazing network of friends."
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Dr. Chetna Singh, an ER doc in New Jersey, is part of an online community for creative physicians. She finds heaps of encouragement there. She loves to paint and runs a small business painting scarves. Still, she acknowledges that creative work is not a panacea for the fatigue, demoralization and burnout many in medicine are experiencing. She says, "I'm just mentally tired."
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Mentally tired? I know the feeling. And while we can't paint (or in my case, draw comics) or podcast our way out of burnout, I was heartened by these stories of colleagues continuing to make stuff. With the specter of future surges before us, cultivating connection, community and joy seems even more essential. Five diverse health workers stand together. They're all thinking "Another surge?"
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Still, some of us are too busy for creative pursuits right now. Dr. Gwen Caffrey of Worcester, Mass., has high hopes for more harmonious days in the future. Caffrey says, "I'm counting down the days to when I'm hopefully joining an acapella group." Four people stand together singing.
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Dr. Grace Farris is an associate professor of medicine at the University of Texas at Austin's Dell Medical School. Her book, Mom Milestones, comes out in the spring. You can find her on Instagram @coupdegracefarris.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.