PPE Portraits: How a team of UBC students are bringing a face to the COVID-19 pandemic

This article is posted on behalf of the MUS. Several med students are currently leading an initiative to photograph health care workers to help enable a connection between a patient and their healthcare worker. If you are a resident and would like to order a PPE Portrait for yourself or a colleague, visit https://link.ppeportraits.ca/BC to fill out a 2-5 minute order form.

By Max James Hill

For those dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on a daily basis, a friendly face goes a long way.

Dr. Jacques Zhang (VGH Plastics)

The PPE Portrait Project, which was first created by artist Mary Beth Heffernan during the Ebola epidemic in Liberia in 2014, is an initiative focused on connecting health care workers and patients through full-colour printed wearable portraits that can be attached to PPE gowns.

“The whole premise is that with COVID, people are all masked up and gowned up, and when patients come to the hospital it can be hard for them to know who their health care providers are,” says Jessica Wang, a second-year medical student at UBC. “The whole point of the PPE Portraits is to put a face to whoever is helping you.”

To adapt the project for British Columbia, Jessica partnered with Adamo Donavan, founder of the ICU Bridge Program in Montreal, a volunteer program for undergraduate students. While the project has already seen success in Montreal and Toronto, this is the first time it has been implemented in western Canada.

Jessica was inspired by her own experience working in family practice during COVID-19, and the extra stress of wearing PPE in care facilities. “PPE can be really alienating,” she says. “We have ID badges, but those are really small and usually a lot of staff  will wear them at the hip because it’s easier to access doors.”

The introduction of a large colour portrait of a health care worker’s face on PPE gowns help make each person “recognizable underneath all the PPE gear they’re wearing. Otherwise we all look the same, with the mask and the face shield. It can be hard to recognize one another.”

While the program so far has been successful in its trip across Canada, there are many challenges that are unique to British Columbia when it comes to implementing a project of this scope. “One thing that distinguishes BC from other cities like Toronto and Montreal is how widespread our health care centres are, so it’s been a bigger challenge in terms of delivering to multiple hospitals,” she says.

However, she notes that her team has already found success in sending out portraits across the province to hospitals in Victoria, Prince George, Kelowna, and most recently in the Comox Valley.

Dr. James Brown (BC Women’s Anesthesiology)

Much of the credit for this goes to Jessica’s team, which is made up of fellow Vancouver medical students Sara Choi, Megan Chan, James Taylor, Simrin Dhillon, and Emily Yang. “I think they’ve done an incredible job and I’m grateful to have them as colleagues,” she says.

She also credits much of their positive response to Dr. Philip Hui, who has been instrumental in providing guidance and support. “We’ve managed to apply for grants, navigate hospital administration, and address infection control policies. I’m really impressed with the work that everyone has done.”

While Jessica and her team members will soon move onto clerkship as they continue with their medical degrees, Jessica says that she is confident there will be first-year students to take their place. “I think as long as there is a need or desire by health care staff to have something like this, I think we will always try and offer it if we can,” she says. “We’ll probably be wearing masks for a very long time, so as long as we’re doing that, we will continue to provide this service.”

Despite the difficulties of spearheading an initiative of this scale during the COVID-19 pandemic, the project has been a big success in BC so far. “We’ve received over 400 orders and have delivered 350 to date,” she says. “We’ve also had positive feedback from staff at VGH and BC Women’s telling us that their patients thanked them for wearing their PPE Portrait.”

Ultimately, the project is about building personal connections between patients and health care providers. “If my patients feel more comfortable because they recognize me, it’s always nice,” Jessica says. “We’re trying our best to make them feel at ease and not to feel isolated.”

“COVID has brought on a lot of fear and anxiety, I think there’s a lot that we can do to recreate an environment of care and compassion — and that starts with a portrait.”

If you would like to order a PPE Portrait for yourself or a colleague, visit https://link.ppeportraits.ca/BC to fill out a 2-5 minute order form.

author: Sasha Zalyvadna