Published: 24th June 2020
This Indian-origin US medical student's site tells stories of frontline workers who are battling COVID every single day
US-based Vibhu Krishna's work really took off on Instagram and has managed to get support from artists, other medicos and people who love reading these stories of pith, struggle and great moments
The stories we tell are the stories we live. Hence, the stories we tell about the pandemic will live on for generations and the power of choosing to tell a brave and inspiring story lies in our hands. We need to bring out the anguish of the frontline workers, the awe-inspiring work they are putting in so that it gives strength to everybody. Faces of the Frontline is a website started by a third-year medical student at Columbia University, Vibhu Krishna, with the same intention. "All I knew was that I wanted to share a raw reality and feature as many frontline workers, especially those historically underrepresented or unsung in their fields. I wanted to create a beautiful, honest space for their words to be amplified," says the Ohio-born youngster passionately. Since she initiated the website and Instagram pages, it has been drawing all kinds of stories and praise too, the recognition from Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai was particularly humbling.
Their quest to put forth the stories of various frontline workers, from doctors to hospital shuttle drivers and midwives and so on, is still on and the impact and the goodwill they are able to generate is also sizable. We try to find out the genesis of the project from the founder herself and understand how the initiative continues to inspire her each and every day.
Tell us a little about yourself, why you took up medicine and how you are helping in such difficult times (before FOTF happened)?
As far back as I can remember, I have wanted to be a doctor and an artist, even in second grade, my self-portrait as a painter wearing a white coat and stethoscope was the cover of a paediatric medical journal. As I began to think about both fields in a critical, philosophical fashion, first in college as a Studio Art and Medicine, Health and Society dual major (Vanderbilt University, class of 2016), I found points of intersection beyond traditional art therapy. This included helping redesign a mind-body centre at my undergraduate school using survey data on the mental health of the student body, as well as creating a meditation chamber that utilised principles of biofeedback. After travelling for a year on an artist award (during which I studied yoga in California, Rishikesh and Bali) and working in healthcare advertising, I realised I wanted to deepen my knowledge of human health even further in order to inform systems-level work driven by creativity, mindfulness and science.
When the pandemic struck in NYC, my clinical rotations were suspended. I started a Creative Communications effort through the COVID-19 Student Service Corps to help disseminate calls for donation. Given that students were sidelined and dispersed, I felt that our main ability to communicate and organise our efforts was through digital media. Our exigent calls for PPE were amplified by design work, fundraisers to feed our frontline disseminated via social media campaigns. I also volunteered to collect PPE, both small-scale donations from apartments in NYC and large-scale donations via companies and factories looking to donate.
Those marks | (Pic: Brendan Monroe)
We are aware that while working with COVID-19 Student Service Corps, Columbia University, you realised that frontline workers don't have an outlet and understood a need for something like Faces of the Frontline to exist. But could you take us back to that moment when this realisation actually dawned? What was the direct trigger?
I had been mulling over this idea for about a week, as I had seen many people that I had worked with calling for PPE and support for the frontline via their own social media accounts. At the time, there was so much fear and confusion. A colleague shared a photo of her father on Facebook, his arms raised in a sort of fist pump, describing how he proudly donned his PPE each morning despite the risks involved and how he was managing the safety of his family as well. It was a heartrending post and upon reading it I felt that it deserved a bigger platform and that there were many such stories out there. That very evening, I created the account and her father’s story became our first post.
A few days into the project, I built a website to collect and share other forms of stories and content, and to make the platform feel more accessible to those who may not have an Instagram account. Before I knew it, friends — and even colleagues who I hadn’t connected with in years — were asking to join the team and help out. We were conducting outreach, collecting stories and also collecting words of affirmation from the community to disseminate to our frontlines. The pace of growth was rapid — though not without its hiccups given the rapidly changing status of team members’ personal lives and the pandemic itself — and website traffic steadily up-trended.
Perhaps, the most challenging aspect was the lack of clarity as to the future of this campaign simply due to the lack of data and ability to predict the course of the pandemic. I had no idea how much time we would have to collect and share stories, how long the pandemic would stretch on for, or how much traction this would get. Suddenly, I was managing the workflows of multiple people — all remotely — and still editing each piece of content and creating the background art while also studying for upcoming exams, which were to be delivered remotely. I knew I would need additional hands on deck for this to grow.
I began reaching out to artists to see if they would donate digital images and found even highly-regarded artists (Brendan Monroe @brendantheblob, Fatima Baig @fatimarbaig, Gazoo to the Moon @gazootothemoon) to be extremely generous and grateful to contribute to this cause. Another medical student and friend from undergrad trialled a Twitter account which did not garner the same sort of community largely due to the limitations of the platform for sharing longer stories and images.
After a few weeks, I was able to get additional design help from a fellow medical student and editing help from a friend from undergrad who had studied English. The Instagram campaign by and large has been the most successful aspect of this project, in the sense that it has the most traffic, has shared the most stories and frontline workers featured are regularly and organically given affirmations from the community of 8.1k followers in two months.
Age no bar | (Pic: Vibhu Krishna)
While going through the many stories, there are some of their troubles we are aware of, like wearing PPE kits for long hours, staying away from family to avoid infecting them and so on. But what were some of their troubles that really shocked you?
Dealing with unsafe and mentally taxing work environments is certainly a shock of this time. Perhaps more shocking is that many of these frontline workers were not believed; they had to, in addition to a pandemic, in addition to witnessing so much death and distress, also deal with conspiracy theories and witness people flagrantly flouting social distancing and face-covering guidelines. I cannot imagine how demoralising that would feel. I am grateful to those featured on our page for bravely describing their experience with the 'film your hospital' movement to attempt to classify the virus as a hoax and debunking these ludicrous theories.
Apart from the obvious like providing an outlet to frontline workers and making others aware of their predicament, what impact do you think this initiative is creating?
There are so many less obvious impacts of a project like this:
Partnerships with groups like NYCovidConnect and DonatePPE have allowed for the dissemination of vital, factual information and calls for donation to groups who are placing every penny towards helping combat this pandemic. Similarly, we co-hosted a fundraiser with an NYC ER physician (Dr Calvin Sun) who we were able to connect with via our platform. The fundraiser ended up collecting over a thousand meals for the New York City food bank.
Visibility to artists: By sharing artworks on Instagram and on our website, we have been able to empower artists to continue creating work during this time in a fashion that supports our frontline. Recently, I have extended this to having live 30-minute musical performances on our Instagram account. Some people have money to donate, skills to directly apply against COVID-19. Others have words of affirmation, songs, and brushstrokes.
The mental health aspect of a platform like this is important. Many frontline workers have directly messaged us saying that this space helps them feel supported, helps them write the narrative of what they are experiencing. Some have been brought to tears of gratification simply through the joy of being appreciated and noticed. Similarly, community-members write that they are inspired by the account. One woman even tells us she uses it as her nightly meditation, drafting messages of thanks to each person featured.
Highlighting some of the unsung heroes on the frontline, as well as their diversity: We have featured phlebotomists, lab technicians, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, first responders, radiologists, midwives, veterinarians, student volunteers, numerous types of doctors and nurses, firefighters, hospital shuttle drivers, even a SpiceJet aeroplane captain risking exposure to fly supplies — the list goes on. We have featured stories from 15 plus countries. We have shown that heroes are black, brown, trans, gay, elder, living with a disability, living with immunocompromise. They are expecting mothers, mothers home-schooling their children, caretakers of their own mothers.
Elucidating the human experience: There was a point a few months ago in which I realised Faces of the Frontline was one of few, and one of the first, story-collecting and story-telling platforms purely dedicated to this purpose. This is an historical moment. This platform also serves a societal need to use stories to understand our condition — what we went through, how we went through it, how our people worked against challenges.
Do tell us about the two stories that really moved you and why.
This is perhaps the toughest question! All of these stories are moving in unique ways.
"My experience on the frontlines is hard to sum up. As a #nurse, facing COVID comes with fear, but it also comes with a responsibility to patients to be there for them in their worst moments: when they are alone and fighting for their lives. I wish some people would take this approach when it comes to fighting for equal rights in this country. When we focus on the issue at hand, THE LIVES OF THE OPPRESSED/THE POPULATION IN NEED OF AID, all the rest fades, and all that matters is what’s right. My life matters for the same reason yours does, and hers does, and his does, and theirs do. I would like to help others see that. Stand up against injustice. Speak up whenever you can. Correct people. Have uncomfortable conversations. I am grateful to be helping change the course of history. We are at the beginning of a revolution. It’s not my fight. It’s everyone’s fight. And it’s going to take every single person to make a new world for us." Anna Maria R., BSN, RN is a brave nurse at the helm of multiple #frontlines. Thank you, @amariiarzz for your steadfastness and service. We salute you, stand in solidarity with you, and are honored to share your words. #nurse #blm #blacklivesmatter #blacknurseskillingit #blackexcellence #breonnataylor #blackdoctorsmatter #frontline #facesofthefrontline #justiceforgeorgefloyd #justiceforbigfloyd #justiceforfloyd #essentialworkers #grateful #peaceful #RN #covid_19 #hero #healthcareheroes #frontlinefaces #nurselife #nursestrong #beauty #justice #hope #brave
COVID-19 has exposed so many structural flaws in our society. While racism is certainly not a new pandemic, the brutal killing of George Floyd, shortly after those of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, has led to the formation of a new, different frontline, also spanning numerous countries. I find this nurse particularly inspiring; she has been on multiple frontlines, saving lives in her role as a nurse and working to protect lives in her role as a protestor. To me, she exemplifies a resilience of spirit; she has undoubtedly confronted numerous hurdles simply by existing as a black woman in a society that marginalises people who look like her. Even so, she has dedicated her career — even at personal risk — to helping others. To top it off, she raises awareness about structural barriers in what I am certain is limited free time. To me, this is brave. This is powerful.
At the start of the pandemic, little was known about the virus itself other than its increased severity in elderly persons. This doctor showed bravery and selflessness, even working extra shifts at potential harm to himself — true altruism is rare, and he exemplified it early on in the pandemic. His was among the first photos we shared; he was nominated by his daughter. She writes, “This is my dad, 82 years old, at the highest risk for contracting COVID-19 and dying from it, but still working full time. He’s working weekends and picking up shifts in urgent care. Despite the hours. he is smiling under his mask.”
Since you are studying to be a doctor yourself, did the current state of doctors make you second guess your career choice? If yes, why? If not, why is the determination to be a doctor still strong?
I have long been convinced of a great need for improvement to health and wellness at the systems level. While scared for the well-being of my colleagues (and even my own mother, who is a frontline physician), I am even more sure of my career. Clearly, there are cracks in the system. Clearly, there is work to be done. Clearly, there is a role for creativity and humanism in this process. I am humbled to be going into a career full of the brave humans who are getting us through this pandemic.
What are a few lessons you learnt about being a doctor by running this initiative that you think you would have never learnt otherwise?
Lean on your team. I have heard numerous times from doctors that medicine is a 'team sport'. While I have seen this practiced to varying degrees, many stories describe a camaraderie and respect for team members that is far deeper than case management and treatment plan discussion. This was emotional support, bravery, and strong, shared ownership of a great task.
A post | (Pic: Brendan Sullivan)
Your mental health matters. It is hard to seek out help, especially when everyone around you is dealing with unprecedented hardship and there is still a stigma against seeking psychological care. The protection of the mental health of our doctors is ever-important. The suicide of NYC ER doctor, Dr Lorna Breen, is just as much a casualty of the pandemic as deaths caused by the viral attack. Hospital systems, to their best ability, should have systems in place for protecting the mental health of their employees.
What is the future of this initiative? Any new formats of posts or content we can expect?
We will continue to share frontline stories for as long as people are willing to share them. We will be here to continue bringing visibility to our frontline if there is a resurgence. We will continue evaluating the current landscape and what it means to be on the frontline, and who comprises our frontline. In the coming months, we are looking to publish a large-format book of these to raise money for COVID relief efforts. As one of the largest platforms conducting this sort of story collection, it is our duty to collate and share them.
For more on them, click on facesofthefrontline.org