Haunting Addenbrooke’s doctor portrait captures effects of Covid-19

The haunting painting depicts Dr Andrew Johnston from the John Farman ICU at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

The haunting painting depicts Dr Andrew Johnston from the John Farman ICU at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. - Credit: Heath Rosselli 

A haunting portrait of an ICU doctor “offers a glimpse of the emotional and physical toil” the Covid-19 pandemic has had on emergency service workers.  

The painting depicts Dr Andrew Johnston from the John Farman ICU at Addenbrooke’s Hospital from the perspective of a patient on a ventilator, looking directly into the viewers’ eyes. 

Artist Heath Rosselli, from Worlington in Suffolk, hopes her portrait – entitled ‘Doctor J’ - will encourage frontline workers to reflect on and talk about the mental health impact of the past year. 

She hopes they will reach out for support if they need it through ‘Our Frontline’, an initiative which offers round the clock mental health and bereavement support for key workers across the UK.  

Last April, when the first wave of the virus took hold, Rosselli, who specialises in preserving the time-honoured oil painting techniques of the Old Masters, had the idea of capturing what was happening for historical record.  

“My aim at the outset was to create a snapshot in time that will last beyond photographs,” she said. 

“To convey a message about the courage and commitment of frontline workers at this extraordinary time in history, something that can be passed onto present and future generations about this crisis. 

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“I wanted to capture the humanity and fragility behind the masks, PPE and the ‘hero’ labels.   

“Dr Johnston’s face may be covered, but his eyes speak volumes about the emotional and mental toll of the pandemic.” 

Rosselli, whose previous work has been exhibited at The National Portrait Gallery and The Louvre, worked on the portrait throughout the year in between commissions, and as the pandemic unfolded, the message of the painting began to evolve in tandem, taking on an increasing focus on mental health. 

She added: “My paintings tend to take on a mind of their own, and I found that with the second spike and the enormous emotional burden that is once again on frontline staff, Dr Johnston’s facial expression started to evolve.  

“We had no idea when I started the painting that the pandemic would be going on for so long, and I think the sheer relentlessness of it all is evident in the painting.  

“If even one frontline worker relates to the look in Dr Johnston’s eyes and is compelled to seek support, then it’s done its work. 

Rosselli and Dr Johnston hope that the painting will generate conversations about mental health among frontline workers, after a recent report showed that nearly half of doctors and nurses on ICU wards have experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression.  

Our Frontline, a joint initiative from Mind, Samaritans, Shout 85258, Hospice UK and The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, has also reported a five-fold increase in web visits over recent weeks.  

Dr Johnston said: “The portrait is incredibly powerful and I found it hard to look away.  

“It offers a glimpse of the emotional and physical toil this pandemic has had on staff, and provides a moment to reflect on how it has felt to work on the frontline over the past year.  

“A year into the pandemic, some staff are doing okay, while others are chronically stressed, distressed, exhausted and burning out.  

“Heath has captured a sense of sadness and exhaustion, but also a sense of diligence, professionalism and a focused team who have risen to the challenge during extraordinary circumstances and often dark and frightening times.  

“I imagine this may strike a chord with people from many different walks of life who work in front line roles and identify with these feelings, and I hope that it will show people that they’re not alone - there is lots of support out there and I hope this will encourage anyone who to reach out for help if they need it.” 

A Samaritans volunteer said: “We are hearing from health care workers who feel overwhelmed and exhausted by their experiences on the frontline.  

“As the pandemic continues on, they must remember to take care of their own wellbeing and talk about how they are feeling.  

“It’s vital that our health care workers reach out for help if they are struggling and know they can find the support they need through Our Frontline.” 

Rosselli is now keen that the painting is seen by NHS staff across the country, and plans to loan it out to hospitals to be exhibited in staff-facing areas, starting with Addenbrooke’s. 

Our Frontline offers round-the-clock one-to-one support for frontline workers, by call, text and online.  

For more information on the free and confidential support, visit: www.ourfrontline.org