A local doctor on the front lines of the Covid battle has armed himself with a brush and finds comfort in color. And now his creations are easing the burden for others.
Justin Fiala is a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Medicine, where he cares for the sickest Covid patients.
“I can spend hours at a time down here and it feels like 10 minutes,” he said. “It’s a meditative process. … By anchoring in the ability to get my feelings out in painting, I was really able to work through some of the lowest points emotionally within the pandemic.”
Fiala is also an artist.
“The ICU can be such a hard place to work because we see the worst of the worst coming through,” he said. “We see the horrors of the worst things that can happen.”
But in his home studio, tubes of paint and a colorful palette offer a stark contrast to the sterile and stressful intensive care unit.
“At the beginning, it was daunting to go into work every single day and I certainly felt like I was going into a war zone in those early days,” he said.
It’s a period that inspired his current canvas — a CTA commute to work during the early days of the pandemic.
“You look around on that morning bus at 5:30 in the morning and you see it’s all scrubs,” he said. “Everybody is headed toward the same place, which is dedication to patient care.”
Today, it’s a different patient population on the unit.
“Two years out, there has been a lot of delayed diagnoses, delayed care for other chronic illness whether — that is cancer, heart failure, take your pick, people who were undertreated or inadequately treated — now are coming in with advanced disease and covid on top of it,” he said.
Just as the caseload at the hospital has changed, so has Fiala’s method with the brush.
“Eventually, what started to kind of pop out was a human form and it’s something that organically grew out of the canvas,” Fiala said.
His signature sharp angles give way to more fluid lines in this self-portrait of sorts.
“One of the first things I kind of saw coming into focus was what ended up being a breathing tube, kind of extending from the mouth down through the throat into the trachea,” he said.
He worked on the painting for a year and a half.
“I think it represents the odd place the ICU exists in which is halfway between life and death sometimes, truly like a purgatory to a certain extent,” he said. “It really is a reflection of, ‘There but for the grace of God go all of us,’ that critical illness can affect all of us.”
With other pieces of his pandemic-themed art surrounding him, Fiala plans to keep creating.
Some of these complex issues and ethical questions that have come about over the course of the pandemic, my art has been the lens through which I have been able to make some sense of it. So I just count myself lucky that I had this art as an alternate way to vent that frustration and play with some of these ideas and make sense of a lot of the chaos that has gone on.”Dr. Fiala
Fiala said he took art lessons as a kid, then life and career got in the way of his creations, until now when the weight of the pandemic pulled him back to the release of painting.