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Arts & Culture
These articles were excerpted from Tapestry, a weekly newsletter that examines the arts and entertainment world in Charlotte and North Carolina.

'Beauty In The Midst Of Such Pain And Despair'

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Courtesy Novant Health
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A sampling of artwork provided to health care workers at Novant Health and Atrium Health by local artists.

When Bryan McLaughlin worked in Atrium Health’s COVID-19 unit as a critical care nurse last year, he would regularly get breakfast, lunch and dinner provided for him by people or businesses that simply wanted to show appreciation for the work being done by him and his co-workers. Pizzas randomly were delivered to the hospital. For awhile, every Friday at 5 p.m., the public banged on pots and pans and cheered their appreciation for all the health care workers enduring this frightening and deadly coronavirus.

The pandemic has gone on for more than a year, now, and attention on health care workers as heroes has diminished.

But their work has not.

“In the beginning, we got so much support as nurses,” McLaughlin said, “and then I think people just assumed it went away. And it's still here.”

COVID-19 is still here. People are still getting sick, even as the vaccine is finding its way into more arms. Health care workers are still working overtime and seeing people die.

McLaughlin says he saw the “sickest of the sick” in the region before he moved to his current role as an assistant nurse manager at Novant Health’s neuro intermediate intensive care unit. In the early days of the pandemic, he’d regularly see two COVID-19 patients per room, everyone in the ICU on ventilators – and family unable to visit because of coronavirus restrictions.

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Courtesy Bryan McLaughlin
Bryan McLaughlin displays the artwork he chose from the pieces provided to health care workers by local artists.

The hardest part, he said, was seeing patients die alone.

“Because nurses can deal with sick, because we do sick,” he said. “But I think the emotional toll of just seeing that every day, five times a day and just being the only one there with them each time was the hardest part.”

Salisbury artist Liese Sadler heard about the toll the pandemic was taking on health care workers last July when Presbyterian Psychological Services executive director Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea appeared on a Charlotte Talks segment about the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of workers. Frawley-O’Dea talked about many workers might not even be aware, yet, of the damage.

“People will be still recognizing a year from now, maybe for the first time, that they're not sleeping, that they're having nightmares, that they're having intrusive thoughts,” she said. “Many of the people that first came to us had acute stress disorder and now they're having longer term -- they're long haulers, also, right? They’re mental health long haulers, some of them, where there is depression and anxiety and exaggerated startle responses and some feelings that they were forgotten both by their supervisors and managers and also by the public.”

Sadler was so moved by hearing that description that she realized she wanted to do something.

“How could you not just realize that they needed something?” Sadler said. “They needed to know that people cared, I think. That was really where it came from."

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Courtesy Luz Aveleyra
A watercolor image painted by artist Luz Aveleyra that was presented to health care workers.

Sadler, who works with both oil paint and textiles, had been sewing face masks to donate when she saw another story about artists painting portraits of health care workers in the United Kingdom. That one paired with the Charlotte Talks segment to start her thinking: Maybe she could organize something similar for Charlotte-area health care workers?

A conversation with Frawley-O’Dea eventually morphed into a massive art project working with 100 different artists from the region. So far, about 300 miniature pieces of art have been created and distributed to Charlotte health care workers – 150 to Atrium Health and 150 to Novant Health.

Sadler wasn’t sure what to expect from the project, but she knew that she was passing along something meaningful.

“I knew that every artist was sending a little bit of love in there and that it would hopefully make other people feel good,” she said.

From a stack of options, McLaughlin picked out a 3 inch by 4 inch rectangle that looks like a square from a quilt. “That’s the one that kind of spoke to me,” he said. It’s now sitting in his office, a daily colorful reminder that someone out there thought of him and what he’s endured over the past year.

“I think I appreciate that more than like a box lunch that somebody gave because somebody, you can tell, sat down and took the time and made something special,” he said.

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Courtesy Novant Health
Novant Health chaplains Chris Williams, Lisa Huffman and Chelsy Mitchell hold up artwork they received as part of the project.

As Frawley-O’Dea said, “unlike the pizzas that were sent to an E.R., this will last forever.”

“They have something that shows appreciation that they can hang on to,” she said. “It was something beautiful, but also and especially, a symbol that they were still being held in mind and heart and were recognized as appreciated by the artists of our community, that somebody's recognizing them and wanting to provide beauty in the midst of such pain and despair.

“I think that that's where the beauty part comes in. The tangible, beautiful colors are lovely in a world that for so many months was pretty ugly.”

Frawley-O’Dea is still hoping health care workers spend time working through their emotions, too. Her nonprofit Presbyterian Psychological Services has extended three pro bono therapy sessions to health care workers. “It’s a combined effort of art and science, I guess,” she said.

And Sadler is just happy that she could spark something that might have brought even a tiny bit of color to the darkness.

“With something like this and there's nothing you can do to make it get better, all you can do is help people,” she said.

For artists and others interested in showing their appreciation to health care workers, email healthhumanities@novanthealth.org

or see www.atriumhealth.org/about-us/coronavirus/thank-you

For health care workers interested in free and financially assisted mental health therapy, visit www.presbypsych.org

This story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment email newsletter, Tapestry. Sign up here to have Tapestry delivered straight to your inbox.