Faces of the Frontline is digital campaign that began at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic “to amplify the voices of those keeping us safe.” Led by medical students and volunteers from a variety of backgrounds, the project is a powerful illustration of humanism. The team has shared hundreds of moving portraits and stories from physicians, nurses, and so many other healthcare professionals caring for patients on the frontline in this crisis. Founder and Creative Director Vibhu Krishna is a rising fourth-year medical student at Columbia University. Outreach Chair Maani Kamal is a rising fourth-year medical student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a member of Gold Humanism Honor Society. Here, Vibhu and Maani share the background and impact of this initiative. Learn more at http://www.facesofthefrontline.org. Find the project on Instagram at @facesofthefrontline.
Tell us about the origin of Faces of the Frontline. What inspired this project?
Vibhu: Faces of the Frontline (FOTFL) was inspired by a variety of things all building up as clinical training and New York City alike began closing. I would see calls for help, as well as read heart-rending stories of those who up until recently were training me, and felt that their stories deserved an authentic, beautiful platform. Our frontliners deserved to be seen, and the community in general could then gain insight into the reality of our times and interact with frontliners and their stories — providing words of support or simply bearing witness — in a way they may not have been able to without this platform.
In your own words, why is storytelling so important and how does that relate to humanism in healthcare on the whole?
Maani: Our mission at FOTFL is to share honest and resilient stories from the people on the frontlines. Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to build communities and inspire people to act. We hope that after hearing an ICU nurse share his intense fear of bringing COVID-19 home to his family, people are more likely to wear face coverings, refrain from non- essential travel, and be more cognizant of how their actions affect this humanitarian crisis as a whole. Stories drive empathy and compassion — two values at the center of humanistic medicine. While the media was flooded with numbers and statistics, there was a lack of narrative content and we wanted Faces of the Frontline to fill that void.
Your project not only gives affirmations to those working in the midst of this pandemic, but also gives people outside of the medical or “essential” professions direct access to their stories. Can you talk about why that is significant?
Vibhu: What occurs inside hospital walls is often a mystery, shaped by TV shows and media in which the medical worker does not necessarily have the ultimate voice. By transcending these walls and unmasking the brave medical professionals working against this pandemic, we are shedding light on issues confronting frontliners in a manner that helps curb some of this mystery (and de-bunk conspiracy theories). Especially in a time in which visitors to the hospital are extremely limited, especially when healthcare workers are being tasked with superhuman responsibility, people need to know what is going on. Not only does this sow seeds of empathy, it also directs people towards public health measures such as social distancing and wearing a face covering — i.e., behaviors to protect the faces of our frontline.
What’s something about working on the frontlines that you think the average person might not consider? What would you want people to know, or to think about?
Maani: First, we are endlessly grateful for everyone on the frontlines and understand that words will never be enough to express our gratitude. Working on the frontlines, especially in “hot spots,” is an utterly traumatic experience. For most, they go home worrying about spreading this stigmatizing and unpredictable disease to their families. For some, it means they witness their colleagues and/or loved ones die and still must show up to work the next day. The effect on essential workers’ mental health will outlast the development of a vaccine. We, as part of the larger healthcare community, need to be ready to support them.
Speak to the role of compassion in your work. Why is it important, what are some of the challenges involved in fostering it, and have you experienced anything akin to “compassion fatigue?” If so, how do you address it?
Vibhu: Compassion is pivotal to this work—the act of storytelling through the creation of a dynamic, interactive, and social platform requires diligence and frequent interaction with frontliners from around the world who we have never met in person. Without compassion for these humans and their stories, this platform and its driven team would not exist. Cultivating a sense of compassion among our readership is also key to driving a sense of awareness, which in turn has the power to shape prosocial behavior. There are people who read these stories and commented that they will continue to wear a mask and share public health advice with their peers. Others shared that they use these stories as a nightly meditation, and feel empowered that they can directly give words of compassion and affirmation to featured frontliners.
From a behind-the-scenes perspective, is so humbling to be proximal to so many stories. It would be remiss to not mention the emotions — some very tragic — that build up while poring over hundreds of stories. During one of the first few weeks of FOTFL, I recall reading numerous stories in one day. It was the week of a shelf exam (that had been re-scheduled multiple times due to the pandemic) and my mom’s first week on the frontlines. I had compartmentalized these stressors in an effort to balance studying and populating the growing Instagram account without pausing to process what I was reading. Later that day when my mom sent me a picture wearing PPE from the hospital, the fragile stoicism evaporated and the floodgates rushed open.
I felt inundated by the secondary, or perhaps even tertiary, stress of the pandemic and interacting with (and doing my best to support) so many frontliners and their gut-wrenching stories. After a lengthy catharsis during which I vowed to be better about acknowledging and processing my own emotions towards these stories, I grew more resolute in sharing them. As a team, we check in with each other and are cognizant of how this work affects our headspace and our emotions. We work at a pace that allows us a sense of balance and maintain open dialogue to maintain our sense of empathy and compassion.
One of the defining characteristics of humanism in healthcare is collaboration. Can you tell us about some of the forms of collaboration involved in FOTFL?
Maani: Our Instagram page and website feature essential workers from many different disciplines. We regularly collaborate with nurses, artists, medical students, doctors and artists because each of these crafts brings a unique and crucial perspective to the pandemic. We have worked closely with American Medical Women’s Association and the Student National Medical Association to amplify diverse stories from frontline. FOTFL recognizes that it takes an entire team to keep our communities safe during a pandemic. We need people delivering packages of PPE to hospitals, cooking for patients with complex dietary needs, and stocking grocery stores. We also need nurses, physicians, techs, physical and occupational therapists, doctors and custodians, and many others.
What’s been your biggest personal takeaway from working on this project so far?
Vibhu & Maani: We are forever in awe of the resiliency of the human spirit and will never underestimate the power of narrative. These stories show grit, bravery, and compassion, and it is beautiful to watch the growing FOTFL community rally around the featured frontliners. We now have a community of over 9,400 people that spans 15 countries. These narratives are powerful reminders of what has unfolded and can help inform numerous aspects of post-pandemic healing. They raise questions that I would pose to hospital networks and health systems as a whole: Why were so many afraid to go to work, and how can we fix this? Where are the areas calling to be redesigned in our care system? How do we help assuage the anxiety, fatigue, and collective trauma that have been caused by the pandemic? By collecting these experiences, we are able to identify common threads and amplify these powerful voices. It is my hope that this will be used to foster growth in our healthcare system.
How can someone join this project with you? Where should they send their story and photo, and do you have any parameters?
We are always happy to grow our FOTFL community! Stories, poems, and artworks written by frontlines or for frontlines can be submitted via our website www.facesofthefrontline.org/submit (desktop recommended) or via email to email@example.com. We have no word limit and encourage diverse use of media and format—whatever shares your experience best.