First Friday art talks usually become passive affairs, with artists discussing their works as visitors politely watch and listen. At last Friday’s opening of “The Mind of a Healthcare Worker During the COVID-19 Pandemic” at the Homer Council on the Arts, artist and emergency room physician Dr. Sami Ali set up her talk with some cosplay.
Pointing to a stack of personal protective equipment — plastic gowns, N-95 face masks, surgical gloves and face shields — she said, “If you’ve never had the experience of wearing more than just a fabric or surgical mask, I invite you to experience the full healthcare worker experience by putting on PPE.”
Ali, 48, has been an emergency room doctor for 14 years at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, including the last two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. Born in South Vietnam, Ali escaped with her family in 1975 when North Vietnam invaded Saigon. Her parents had worked at the U.S Embassy in Saigon and were part of the evacuation shown of 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 from the Alabama School of Medicine. She also did training in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Ali chose emergency medicine as her specialty.
“It just appealed to me having a variety of patients every day, from kids to adults, trauma to medical stuff,” she said.
After her residency she worked in Houston for three years. One summer she came to Alaska for adventure and interviewed for a job in Fairbanks. In 2003 she worked for a year there, “which was great, except for the cold.” After a few years in Texas, in 2005 she got a job at Providence. She met her husband, Steve Potter, a mental health clinician who works in the Providence psychiatric health department.
Ali started painting while in college when she took a class in acrylics. She also taught herself calligraphy and for awhile had a calligraphy business.
“I really loved it,” she said of painting. “After college I would paint on the side for fun, but then started getting back into it in 2018.”
Her show features the standard forms of painting: landscapes, still lives and portraits.
“I kind of see them all as little puzzles,” she said. “I don’t think of them as categories. They’re more just puzzles to figure out, portraits being the biggest puzzle of all.”
In 2019 she taught herself oil painting, and as a New Year’s resolution at the end of 2019, decided she would get back into her art and paint every day.
As the Chinese saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”
“I didn’t know what was coming,” Ali said in her artist’s talk.
Arranged on the walls of the HCOA gallery, her show is in five parts and follows the chronology of the pandemic. A booklet at HCOA describes the show.
“Part One: When We Were Heroes” features portraits of healthcare workers (including one of Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink). Ali said she painted those in the early days as COVID-19 came to Alaska. People in the Pacific Northwest medical community heard of a doctor in Washington who got COVID-19 and had to go on a heart-lung bypass machine.
“And was this the future we had to look forward to? We didn’t know,” Ali said.”… When I looked around at my coworkers in the emergency room, I could see, you know, that they were all very scared.”
Her portraits captured the mood of healthcare workers at the time.
“Day after day, I saw that kind of stress interpreted in different ways,” Ali said.
“Part Two: Preparing for a Pandemic” shows spring of 2020, as Alaska ramped up testing sites.
“Nurses were standing out there in what you’re wearing, and they were swabbing people,” Ali said. “There’s snow on the ground. It was 25 degrees. And still the nurses were outside doing this, and I couldn’t even believe it. So I stood outside and plein air painted those drive-through test centers.”
At that time, PPE was in short supply. To extend the wear of masks, healthcare workers would rotate masks, one a day. Using a system of paper bags, they put the used masks in a bag, got a fresh one, use that, put it in another bag, and so on for three to five days. One painting is a still life of those bags. Ali also asked colleagues for their used bags and masks, and her show features an installation of those bags with the names and dates on them.
A wall of portraits hung out of level makes up “Part Three: PPE Problems.” The discomfort of wearing face masks all day wore on healthcare workers. Ali said glasses fogging up was a common problem, but worse was when it “felt like your ear was just being ripped off,” she said.
Those portraits show that.
“It was like painting vomit,” Ali said. “It just all came out of me, and I just couldn’t help but make these gory pictures.”
“Part Four: A Vaccine is Coming” moves into the winter of 2020 and spring of 2021, when healthcare workers and then everyone could get the COVID-19 vaccines. A whole wall is nothing other than still lives of flowers.
“I was so giddy. I was so excited,” Ali said of the time. “And so those flower paintings came out of me. I mean, I was just, I couldn’t paint anything else but flowers.”
That giddiness faded in the summer of 2021 with the surge of the delta variant. “Part Five: The Battle Rages On,” came out of that relapse. Ali said she started to see more patients in the ER, and realized that except for severely ill people like cancer patients, most of the COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated. One photo shows a view of a patient’s throat as they’re being intubated. Another, “Compassion Fatigue,” features a flat green line against a black background.
At the opening, Ali talked to a woman who read her brochure as she walked through the show,
“At the end she was crying,” Ali said. “She told me the last few paintings left an impression. That hit me pretty hard.”
During the delta surge, Ali said she asked patients why they hadn’t gotten vaccinated. Most of them told her, “Well, I just didn’t think I would get it,” she said.
Her show ends with a solitary painting of flowers, “Hope,” under the word “Endemic.” As the omicron variant becomes more common and case counts go up in Alaska, Ali said she’s not seeing as many people sick.
“I feel like we’ve passed another peak, and every peak, you know, we’re not off the mountain, but we’re past another peak,” she said. “… I do feel like there is hope for a day when we’re not all arguing and on opposite sides of every issue, and I do, I am optimistic that there’s a day when COVID is going to be endemic. … I think we’re closest to it being done and there being sort of happier times ahead.”
Ali’s exhibit shows through the end of the month and in February will move to the South Peninsula Hospital gallery in the hall on the entrance level. For more information on Ali, visit her website at www.samialiart.com.