HOMER — First Friday art talks usually become passive affairs, with artists discussing their works while visitors politely watch and listen. At the Jan. 7 opening of “The Mind of a Healthcare Worker During the COVID-19 Pandemic” at the Homer Council on the Arts, artist and emergency physician Dr. Sami Ali hosted his conference with a cosplay.
Showing off a stack of personal protective equipment – plastic gowns, N-95 face masks, surgical gloves and face shields – she said: “If you have never had the experience of wearing more than a cloth or a surgical mask, I invite you to live the full experience of healthcare workers by putting on PPE.
Ali, 48, has been an emergency physician for 14 years at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, including the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. Born in South Vietnam, Ali escaped with her family in 1975 when North Vietnam invaded Saigon. His parents had worked at the US Embassy in Saigon and were part of the evacuation shown Huey helicopters rescuing people from the roof of the Embassy.
Then only 2 years old, Ali and her family came to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and later lived in Illinois, Texas and Alabama. She graduated from Springhill College in Mobile and the Alabama School of Medicine. She also trained in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Ali chose emergency medicine as his specialty.
“It appealed to me having a variety of patients every day, from children to adults, from trauma to medical stuff,” she said.
After her residency, she worked in Houston for three years. One summer, she came to Alaska for the adventure and interviewed for a job in Fairbanks. In 2003, she worked there for a year, “which was great, except for the cold”. After a few years in Texas, in 2005 she got a job in Providence. She met her husband, Steve Potter, a mental health clinician who works at Providence’s Department of Psychiatric Health.
Ali started painting in college when she took an acrylic course. She also learned calligraphy and had a calligraphy business for a while.
“I absolutely loved it,” she said of the painting. “After college I painted sideways for fun, but started getting back into it in 2018.”
His exhibition presents the classic forms of painting: landscapes, still lifes and portraits.
“I see them all as little puzzles,” she said. “I don’t see them as categories. These are more than puzzles to solve, with the portraits being the biggest puzzle of all.
In 2019, she learned oil painting on her own and, at the end of 2019, as a New Year’s resolution, decided to get back to her art and paint every day.
As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Ali said in his artist speech.
Arranged on the walls of the HCOA gallery, his show is in five parts and follows the timeline of the pandemic. A pamphlet from the Homer Council on the Arts describes the show.
“Part One: When We Were Heroes” features portraits of healthcare workers (including one of Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink). Ali said she painted them early on when COVID-19 hit Alaska. Members of the Pacific Northwest medical community have heard of a doctor in Washington who contracted COVID-19 and required heart bypass surgery.
“And was this the future we should expect?” We didn’t know,” Ali said. “…When I looked around at my colleagues in the ER, I could see, you know, they were all very scared.”
His portraits captured the mood of healthcare workers at the time.
“Day after day, I’ve seen this kind of stress interpreted in different ways,” Ali said.
“Part Two: Preparing for a Pandemic” shows the spring of 2020 as Alaska ramped up testing sites.
“The nurses were standing there in what you’re wearing and they were dabbing people,” Ali said. “There is snow on the ground. It was 25 degrees. And the nurses were still out there doing this, and I couldn’t even believe it. So I stood outside and painted these drive-in test centers outdoors.
At that time, PPE was rare. To extend the wearing of masks, healthcare workers would rotate masks, one per day. Using a paper bag system, they put used masks in one bag, get a new one, use it, put it in another bag, and so on for three to five days. A painting is a still life of these bags. Ali also asked his colleagues for their used bags and masks, and his show features an installation of those bags with the names and dates on them.
A wall of portraits hanging off the level make up “Part Three: PPE Issues”. The discomfort of wearing face masks all day has focused on healthcare workers. Ali said glasses fogging was a common problem, but the worst was when “it felt like your ear had just been ripped out,” she said.
These portraits show it.
“It was like painting vomit,” Ali said. “It all came out of me, and I couldn’t help but make these gory pictures.”
“Part Four: A Vaccine is Coming” moves to winter 2020 and spring 2021, when health care workers, and then everyone else, could receive COVID-19 vaccines. An entire wall is nothing but still lifes of flowers.
“I was so giddy. I was so excited,” Ali said of the time. “And so these flower paintings came out of me. I mean, I was just, I couldn’t paint something other than flowers.
This vertigo faded in the summer of 2021 with the rise of the delta variant. “Part Five: The Battle Rages On”, emerged from this relapse. Ali said she started seeing more patients in the ER and realized that with the exception of seriously ill people like cancer patients, most COVID-19 patients weren’t. not vaccinated. A photo shows a view of a patient’s throat as he is intubated. Another, “Compassion Fatigue,” features a flat green line on a black background.
At the opening, Ali spoke to a woman who read her brochure while browsing the show,
“At the end, she was crying,” Ali said. “She told me that the last paintings had left an impression. It hit me pretty hard.
During the delta push, Ali said she asked patients why they didn’t get vaccinated. Most of them told her, “Well, I just didn’t think I would get it,” she said.
His show ends with a solitary painting of flowers, “Hope”, under the word “Endemic”. As the omicron variant becomes more common and the number of cases increases in Alaska, Ali said she’s not seeing as many sick people.
“I feel like we’ve passed another peak, and every peak, you know, we’re not off the mountain, but we’ve passed another peak,” she said. “…I feel like there’s hope for a day when we don’t all argue and on opposite sides of every issue, and I do, I’m optimistic there will be a day when COVID will be rampant. … I think we’re about to do that and there are happier times ahead.
Ali’s exhibition will run until the end of the month and in February will move to the South Peninsula Hospital gallery in the lobby at the entrance level. For more information on Ali, visit his website at www.samialiart.com.