Back in April, Shevaun Assini sent a selfie to her mother, painter Laurie Simko. She wasn’t blowing Simko a “hello” kiss. Assini is a nurse at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen. Like many medical workers at the height of the COVID-19 surge, she’d been coping with a shortage of personal protective equipment. A shipment had come in, and she shot a picture of herself properly outfitted in mask, gown, and face shield.
Her daughter’s selfie moved Simko not only as a mother, but as an artist.
“I was so struck with the image, I thought, I have to paint her portrait,” Simko said.
Soon, Assini was sending Simko pictures of her co-workers suited up to fight COVID, and Simko, who usually focuses on nature, was working on a series of portraits from the pandemic’s frontline, which she has posted on her Instagram page (@lauriesimko). Some nurses appear in reflective face shields and masks with snapshots of themselves stuck in the brim, first names prominently spelled out. Others show up with their masks off, their faces chafed.
The artist spoke or texted with everyone she painted.
“I felt it was important to tell their stories,” Simko said. “They’re all nighttime workers. They sleep a lot during the day. It’s not easy to reach them. Plus, they were reticent. I said, ‘People really care, and this is such an important story to chronicle.‘”
She posted snippets of their stories alongside their portraits.
“I remember holding a phone so a patient could talk to his wife [in Spanish] with his last coherent words,” reads text accompanying the portrait of Jocelyn Messinger, a registered nurse in the telemetry unit at Holy Family. “He’s surrounded by us English-speaking nurses in full masks and gowns doing our best to comfort him, to save him. It must have been terrifying for him.”
Messinger said she’s honored to be part of Simko’s project. “It’s a simple but powerful way that she tells our story. Our story and our patients',” she said. “It’s a glimpse into our lives, what we do in the middle of some extraordinary times.”
The nurses’ protective gear tells one story. Their weary, open faces tell another.
“There are no family members, and the poor patients are in there for weeks, and family can’t go near them,” Simko said. “It would take 10 minutes to put all the right gear on, and the nurses would sometimes stay with one patient for hours, they were so in need of care.”
“We are quite literally just doing our job, taking care of people who are sick, vulnerable, and scared. They can’t be with their families,” Messinger said. “And we are also vulnerable and scared, and having to reassure our patients and keep doing our job.”
In their exchanges with Simko, many of the nurses expressed gratitude for their co-workers.
“We trust each other, that’s what gets us through. It’s a battle mentality. We stick together,” Messinger said. “We couldn’t do it without each other.”
Simko said painting the nurses’ portraits got her through the stress of COVID’s early days.
“When I’m painting them, I fall in love with their faces, their eyes, the folds of their clothes, the bonnets they wear,” she said. “I responded to these faces, these stark faces. There’s so much in their eyes.”
The artist is now at work painting a doctor’s portrait for a New York City project memorializing health care workers who succumbed to COVID. The portraits, she said, will be projected on a building in New York.
Simko has painted 20 health care workers at Holy Family. While that series may be complete, she said, there may be more to come.
“I feel so strongly about these people,” she said. “I’m not sure where I’m going with it.”
Nobody knows where the pandemic is going, either.
“We talk about this all the time,” Messinger said. “I think we anticipate another surge, but we’re hoping it’s not as bad as April. We are definitely more prepared, and have more knowledge and experience, and know what to expect.”
The nurses are there to provide care. The artist is there to testify.
“I read about the 1918 pandemic. When it was over, everyone moved on,” Simko said. “I want us to remember what these frontline workers did, and to honor them.”