Faces of the Frontline is a COVID storytelling platform with humanity at its heart. As a community member, consider nominating your frontline hero, and if you are a frontliner yourself, you are encouraged to share your story — narratives, poetry, paintings, songs, any artform of your choice. We hear from one of its co-founders.
Here we are, in 2020, exposing break after break in our medical system. The burden of the pandemic is shouldered by too many to count. Frontline workers are facing burnout, debt, and compassion fatigue. One thing is certain: people will continue to need medical attention post-COVID. Illness—COVID resurgence or not—will persist. Valiant healthcare workers are dying. Certainly, it is true that many companies and organizations have come together to provide everything from skincare packages to painted portraits of frontline workers, honoring and affirming their heroic efforts. These perks are a precious reminder of the human desire to help from those who are not trained to be on the frontline. They are an important way of helping frontliners feel seen. But this is not enough.
As a medical student, I feel more sure than ever of the importance of this career choice. I am humbled by the profession during this pandemic, and grateful to be on the path to joining it. Yet, I do not want to enter a field in which grassroots efforts are necessary to obtain even basic protective equipment for my continued safety. Right now, I do not know how to solve the myriad systems-level problems—ranging from supply chain logistics to physician wellness—that have become exposed like freshly-skinned knees, gaping throughout the Spring of 2020.
I do know this: we need to talk about it. Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote “Medicine…begins with storytelling. Patients tell stories to describe illness; doctors tell stories to understand it.” This is as relevant in a pandemic as ever; frontline medical professionals and those bearing witness must collectively share what they have experienced. We must piece together these narratives and unearth commonalities to truly know what happened. Just as we must continue rigorous quantitative research on the virus itself, we must also conduct qualitative examination. In the peri-COVID era, it is critical to cultivate lasting empathy for the frontline and to process the collective trauma that has likewise claimed lives alongside the virus itself.
Only by establishing widespread, lasting awareness will empathy-driven solutions arise and will continued behavior changes (e.g. social distancing, wearing face coverings) persist. The act of storytelling comes with added bolstering of mental health; it is a means of coming to terms with a challenging and rapidly changing work environment and being directly in harm’s way with inadequate protective—both physical and psychological—equipment.
Learning about the grueling work-environment into which my colleagues and mentors were being deployed prompted me to call upon my medical humanities background to create Faces of the Frontline, a social media campaign and website that brings together stories from the frontline through various expressive media. This project is run by a group of numerous Vanderbilt alumni, including Jason Thome (B.A. Chemistry ‘17), Owen Akeley (B.A. English ‘16), Maani Kamal (B.S. Engineering Science ‘16), and Lisa Muloma (B.A. English ‘17), all calling upon their scientific and creative backgrounds to give voice to our frontline. We believe that frontline stories deserve visibility, and the psychological, societal, and systems-level benefits of these narratives are abundantly clear.
If you have or know someone who has a frontline experience or story to share, if you simply want to feel seen, or if you want to support the frontline, please consider engaging with this digital campaign. You can do so by following it on Instagram (@facesofthefrontline) or via web at www.facesofthefrontline.org.
Vibhu is a graduate of Vanderbilt University (B.A. Medicine Health & Society and Studio Art) and a third-year medical student.