To Help Process the Pandemic, One Doctor
Turns to Art

Marie DeFreitas

January 28, 2022

For Justin Fiala, MD, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, a paintbrush and canvas have been a saving grace throughout the pandemic.

As one of the countless doctors on the front lines of the ICU, Fiala has witnessed horrors that can be incredibly difficult to process. During his days off, he found himself rediscovering the catharsis and reflection that painting brought him when he was younger — and even more so now.

Fiala's work offers a lens through which to see the pandemic. For him, his paintings have been a conduit to help emotionally process the past couple of years that have wreaked havoc on hospitals and healthcare workers alike. As a person familiar both with deadly disease and art, Fiala believes that art is a necessary component to help understand and digest tragedy.

In that spirit, he donated a painting entitled Many Moons to the ICU at Northwestern. He dedicated it to all the healthcare professionals risking their lives day in and day out to care for their patients.

Dr Justin Fiala poses with Many Moons, a painting he created to honor his colleagues.

"Across multiple cultures and historical eras, art has played a key role in the public's perception of deadly diseases. I suspect that we, too, will eventually end up with pieces of art that are collectively thought of as emblematic of the COVID-19 era, though what form those pieces take is anyone's guess."

The painting Fiala is currently working on, Self Portrait: Cannulated and Intubated, depicts a figure lying among abstract planes of color. "It was the lines forming the cheekbones that first suggested a human form," he tells Medscape Medical News. "Once the face started to come into focus, the lines coming toward the mouth seemed reminiscent of an endotracheal tube, which snowballed into an exploration of critical illness and autonomy in the ICU."

Fiala is currently working on Self Portrait: Cannulated and Intubated.

Fiala attended art classes as a child but had a separation from painting for about a decade as he went through college, medical school, and residency. Like any artist, Fiala struggled with his work and if it really felt "good enough."

"In the current social-media-crazed environment I think there's a fallacy that only works of art that are 'Insta-worthy' [as in Instagram] or likely to garner thousands of likes on social are worthwhile," he says. "Having struggled early on with that particularly toxic mindset, I hope to inspire anyone else that's been discouraged by similar feelings of inadequacy to keep creating, regardless of the public response. Once I realized the joys of experimenting without fear of consequences, the process of honing my skills changed from one of frustration to one of joy. Much like medical training, trusting in the process rather than focusing solely on the end goal seemed to be the key."

Although Fiala's paintings are not for sale at the moment, he is currently gathering a collection of his works to professionally show and sell in the future.

Fiala's at-home studio. His paintings are not for sale at the moment, but he is currently gathering a collection of his works to professionally show and sell.

According to Fiala, visual art has a unique flexibility in the way that it leaves interpretation up to the viewer. "Without words," he says, "the viewer gets to create their own narrative which, I believe, lets them more intimately connect with a piece. As an artist, my goal is to guide the viewer to scenes and ideas that I find interesting or pertinent and let them determine the piece's personal meaning to them."

He draws much of the inspiration for his art from his patients, colleagues, and experiences in the ICU.

"I care deeply for my patients," he says. "I care just as deeply about my colleagues in the ICU — advanced practice providers, nurses, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, social workers, the list goes on. As the leader of a team in the ICU, my goal is to leave no one, be they patient or team member, unsupported."

A watercolor painting of a surgical mask by Fiala.

"This theme of interprofessional support continues to serve as inspiration for my paintings, as the dedication of healthcare workers keeps shining as a beacon of civility in an increasingly barbaric world," Fiala explains. "Above all else, I hope my artwork gives hope to — and if not hope then at least a sense of gratitude toward — all the healthcare workers out there who continue to exemplify the best of us when so much of society is content to embody the worst."

Although art has certainly served as an outlet for Fiala, it has not been a cure-all. "Painting on its own has not been a panacea. But paired with social support, therapy, and other efforts at improving my mental wellness, it has served as a powerful lens through which to process my emotions and improve my overall well-being."

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