Skip to main content

Physician Displays Artwork as a ‘Thank You’ to Healthcare Workers

Justin Anthony Fiala, MD, turned to oil painting as a form of therapy to release anxiety and stress. Now, his artwork has taken on a different meaning.

For the last three years, Dr. Fiala, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Medicine Canning Thoracic Institute, has cared for patients critically ill from COVID-19 in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

“Painting has been a way for me to interpret the world around us and focus on the good instead of the bad,” says Dr. Fiala. “When I was caring for COVID patients on a daily basis, it was hard not to internalize things. Critical care medicine is such a heavy field, and the visual arts have been a godsend for helping me process the gravity of it all.”

As part of TEDxChicago in October 2023, Dr. Fiala’s work was displayed as a “thank you” to healthcare workers everywhere. 

Dr. Fiala originally started painting as a child, but was unable to do it regularly during college and throughout his medical training. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he picked up his paintbrush again and started painting scenes that were happening around him.

One painting shows a hand giving the peace sign with a mask hanging from the wrist. Another painting depicts a patient with COVID-19 on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) — a life support machine that does the work of the heart and lungs.

A multicolor painting. It has an abstract visual of a patient on ECMO, with geometric accents around the body.
One of Dr. Fiala's paintings.

"The painting of the patient on ECMO explores some of the existential quagmires this kind of exceptional life support creates. For instance, a patient may be fully awake, aware that their lungs aren’t improving, and also inescapably aware that the only thing keeping them alive is the machine,” Dr. Fiala says. “As a doctor caring for these patients, I couldn't help but picture myself in that situation and wonder what decisions I'd make."

Dr. Fiala also donated a painting to the MICU called, “Many Moons in the Medical ICU.” It is dedicated to the physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists and staff who risked their lives on the front lines of the pandemic. The painting hangs in The Renewal Room, a place on the unit where staff members who provide direct patient care can rest, reflect and unwind.

“This painting is recognition for the day-in and day-out sacrifices being made by front-line healthcare workers, and it’s a love letter to my colleagues at Northwestern Medicine,” explains Dr. Fiala. “The pandemic weighed particularly heavily on health care. I hope my art serves as a colorful ‘thank you’ to all my fellow healthcare workers who showed up early in the pandemic, kept showing up throughout, and are somehow continuing to persevere through it all."

Are you looking to make a difference in the lives of patients and your peers? Explore what opportunities await you at Northwestern Medicine.