Our COVID-19 experience in art: capturing nursing students’ fears and challenges
Visual journalist Emily Thomas's artwork tells the stories of students’ placements in the NHS
The images are striking and the words are moving.
In one, a nursing student stands in silhouette, masked and gowned. Above the deep blue figure are the words, ‘he said he could see my smile through my eyes’.
Artworks blend images with nursing students’ words about the pandemic
In another, an outline of a young woman wearing a mask is set against a background of words – including one comment that reads: ‘They told the whole country it was happening before even telling the people they were working on the “front line”.’
Others are humbling: ‘This is why nurses do what they do, we do it for our patients.’
These artworks are part of a project that aims to reveal the lives and experiences of the nursing students who took up the challenge of working for the NHS during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Visual journalist Emily Thomas hopes the words and pictures will shine a light on their work and remind everyone to continue to take measures to prevent the spread of the disease.
Project inspired by a conversation with a nursing student
‘It was inspired by a conversation I had with my friend, a nursing student in Bristol in her final year,’ says Ms Thomas, whose art involves finding and telling ‘unseen’ stories.
‘At the start of the pandemic, many students were on placement and were suddenly thrown into the deep end. My friend was on a respiratory ward and she was suddenly caring for patients with this life-threatening, unknown virus.
‘She said it was like waiting for a tsunami of ill people to come through the door and she felt scared and nervous about what was to come. I wanted to make work from that conversation which could be shared with a wide audience that showed these raw emotions and feelings.
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‘I felt that wasn’t what was being seen in the news at the time. I felt these voices weren’t being heard, from these young people just entering the field of nursing and being asked to step up to this frightening reality.’
The project involved interviewing nursing students, picking out key quotes and building images digitally. But while the students were being asked to enter the unknown, the pandemic also meant Ms Thomas had to adapt her own methods.
‘The way that I work usually involves going to the environment and doing observational drawing, and really engaging with the surroundings.
'Obviously I couldn’t do that for this project because it was during the lockdown and I was at home in Devon, so I asked some of the nursing students to take photos for me, which I worked from, and I looked at other photos from the news and documentaries and did observational drawing from those.’
The project let nursing students share their fears
After Ms Thomas published the first words and images on her website, it was largely word of mouth that led to other students coming forward to take part in the project.
They responded positively to the process, she says, which made the project particularly rewarding for her.
‘I knew I wanted to tell their stories, and I was doing it for a positive purpose, but they were actually really pleased to be able to share some of their most harrowing experiences and the difficult emotions they had been dealing with,’ says Ms Thomas.
‘I felt these voices weren’t being heard, from these young people just entering the field of nursing and being asked to step up to this frightening reality’
Emily Thomas, visual journalist
‘Often, they were living alone in student houses, having to isolate and not really seeing many people, and perhaps being really fearful of what they were about to enter, especially at that peak time at the beginning of April. A lot of people I spoke to thanked me for bringing their words to a creative form and sharing their stories in a different way.’
'It's like she was inside my head'
Vicky Rowlands, a final-year student in Stafford who now works in acute and emergency medicine in Shrewsbury, was one of the participants. She found the process of describing how she felt at such an unsettling time almost therapeutic.
‘I felt like I’d had a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,’ she says. ‘It was just as Boris Johnson had announced that nursing students were going to be joining the front line of the NHS, but no one had actually been in contact with us about it. We didn’t know what was happening for us, so it was a good time to have a bit of a rant about what was going on.’
Images are being used to publicise the NHS staff helpline
When she saw her words written down as part of the project, and combined with Ms Thomas’s images, ‘it was absolutely incredible,’ she says. ‘The drawings were just amazing. When Emily showed me the images, I said I needed the print to go on my wall – it’s absolutely stunning. To see your words on paper, and the illustrations she did were absolutely beautiful; it’s like she was inside my head.’
She is pleased that her experience at such an unusual time has been immortalised in art and hopes it will resonate with others.
‘I think an image really captures people – it takes your attention so you can really see what’s going on.’
As well as the web version of the project, Ms Thomas has designed some posters to publicise the NHS staff helpline.
For Ms Rowlands, becoming part of an artistic project at the beginning of her nursing career was a positive experience and she plans to hang the images inspired by her words on her wall.
‘It felt like I was writing in a journal to a complete stranger who then put all of my worries and thoughts into this amazing art.’
What nursing students told the project about life during the pandemic
- ‘Opting in to the emergency register left me feeling worried and anxious at the uncertainty of what I was about to face. However, the past three years of being a nursing student have made me realise that this is really what I want to do, and that I will do whatever I can to help those who need us’
- ‘The personal protective equipment (PPE) is so tight and sweaty. You have to put it on in a certain way and it’s so tight on your face. So you have to put the mask on and fit it yourself and squeeze it round your nose. You do a little test where you breathe in really deeply and the mask will suction a bit because you need an airtight seal. You always feel like "What if I haven’t done that right? What if I’m going in this time and it might not be working?"'
- ‘When caring for patients with COVID-19 it makes you feel on edge and uncertain. It feels strange caring for someone who has such a serious virus that could potentially harm you, and you feel uncertain to touch them or go near them. But when you see how worried those patients are and how alone they feel, you kind of forget about the virus and want to hold their hand and support them.’
- ‘Although it is heartbreaking to tell a family they are unable to share the last moments with their loved one, it is so important to ensure that a member of staff is sat with the patient for as long as possible, providing the family with comfort and reassurance. These are the circumstances of COVID-19 that are truly difficult to experience’
Jennifer Trueland is a health journalist
Find out more
- Emily Thomas's website
- NHS staff helpline: 0300 131 7000