Professor uses art in fight against Ebola

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Art History and Visual Arts Professor (AHVA) Mary Beth Heffernan and College Photographer Marc Campos are spending two weeks in Monrovia, Liberia to implement an in-the-field art project in Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs). Heffernan said that the project—affixing portraits of health care workers to the outside of their protective equipment—will aid in improving the psychological comfort of both Ebola patients and their health care workers.

After proposing her idea to global health organizations in both the United States and Liberia in the fall, Heffernan was officially invited to Monrovia by Dr. Moses Massaquoi, the country director for Ebola case management in Liberia.

Heffernan and Campos will photograph the faces of health care workers in Liberian ETUs and attach the portraits to the outer layer of workers’ personal protective equipment (PPEs). Soon, Heffernan hopes to partner with an organization that will donate the resources needed to expand the project to both urban and rural Liberian ETUs. She listed the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for humanities in medicine and Columbia University as potential partners, although an official partnership has not yet been confirmed.

Dubbed the PPE Portrait Project, Heffernan’s effort is an example of social sculpture. She explained that displaying the clinicians’ faces on the PPEs will ease the fear and estrangement that Ebola patients associate with the frightening suits. In addition, Heffernan said it would help clinicians feel more connected to their patients, which is connected to improving health outcomes.

“It exemplifies art practice as a form of social practice with the capacity for fostering cultural dialogue and social change,” AHVA Chair and Professor Broderick Fox said.

The fear that Ebola patients experience with the PPE has been identified as a significant impediment to recovery and has lead many patients to avoid medical attention altogether. The adverse health effects of fear can slow or complicate the recovery of those who are treated.

“I was responding to those really scary pictures [of the PPE] and empathizing with what it would be like to have this potentially deadly disease, to be isolated from my family and to then be isolated from the healthcare workers themselves,” Heffernan said. “It’s a deeply dehumanizing position.”

After her realization, Heffernan sought assistance for her project from numerous organizations including International Medical Corps and Doctors Without Borders. She noted a reluctance among the Western organizations to engage with her, finding that the Liberian doctors who lived and worked in the patients’ communities were the ones most willing to partner with her.

Though the outbreak has waned in recent weeks and Liberian schools have re-opened after a six-month closure, Heffernan stressed the importance of completing her work before the rainy season begins in late spring, because roads become impassable, and any remaining cases, hard to contact-trace.

“There’s a big psychological cognitive dissonance when patients suddenly see the faces of their healthcare providers, because they were so terrified of them in the so-called hot zone or red zone, and then they’re welcoming and warm on the outside [of the treatment zone],” Heffernan said.

Heffernan’s work has also caught the eye of Dr. Jerry Brown, the medical director of Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA) Hospital in Monrovia and one of TIME Magazine’s 2014 People of the Year, and Dr. Rick Sacra, an American missionary doctor at ELWA. Both have informally supported and advised her throughout the course of the project.

Closer to home, Heffernan’s work is also proving to be an inspiration to the Occidental community.

“It’s great to see a professor integrating her work in real-life political and health-related issues. It allows students to see how their work is capable of making a true difference,” Oliver Benezra (junior), a student in Heffernan’s Sculpture I class, said.

While Heffernan and Campos are in Liberia, they will be in close proximity to doctors and patients in the field, putting them at risk for contracting the virus. Liberia holds the highest death toll of countries affected by the outbreak in West Africa, according to BBC. Three thousand nine hundred deaths have been reported in the country since the outbreak began in March 2014.

“It would be foolish of me to underestimate the virulence of this disease,” Heffernan said. “I have a very healthy respect for the danger of it and the fact that I’m putting myself at risk by going over there.”

Heffernan said the dire need for the project surmounts any fears that she may possess. She hopes that the portraits will eventually become integrated into standard PPE protocol in West Africa.

This article has been edited from its original version, which incorrectly stated that Heffernan would be received grant support from the Gates Foundation rather than the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for humanities in medicine, and that the rainy season caused an increase in Ebola cases, rather than in difficulties for doctors to reach patients.