The Hero Art Project connects artists with families of healthcare workers lost to COVID-19

Autumn Jones By Autumn Jones for CNA

A portrait of Dr. Jorge Vallejo traveled on a boat around Miami as part of The Hero Art Project exhibit earlier this year. / Courtesy of ARTHOUSE.NYC.

New York City, N.Y., Oct 30, 2021 / 00:01 am (CNA).

Daisy Doronilla worked as a nurse at Hudson County Correctional Center for 21 years before she died of COVID-19 on April 5, 2020—the same day she was supposed to be in Israel touring the Holy Land with her church group, the Filipino Apostolate of the Holy Family. Doronilla is one of more than 100 healthcare workers honored in The Hero Art Project, a digital portrait art exhibit curated by family members with the help of ARTHOUSE.NYC.

“It has given us a lot of comfort and a bittersweet sense of joy that she’s not forgotten and that she has been able to touch a lot of people, even in her passing,” said Denise Rendor, Doronilla’s daughter.

To Rendor, it was important that the artist who would depict her mother could do so in a realistic way and full of color, she said. She did not expect, however, the artist to include her family’s Filipino heritage through the use of a banig pattern behind the portrait.

“It completely blew me away,” Rendor said. “It was so moving.”

The image has been displayed in a variety of digital settings over the last year including in the windows of large buildings, on digital kiosks at bus stops, and on billboards in the “Big Screen Plaza” at 29th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City.

“We couldn’t have anyone inside, so we started doing exhibits in the window,” said Susannah Perlman, owner, event producer, and curator of ARTHOUSE.NYC. “The sidewalk became the gallery. The imagery and the story, and the tribute to these individuals could leave the confines of the gallery and go wherever.”

The portraits also floated through Hudson Bay and around Miami aboard boats with digital billboards, and were displayed on traditional billboards across major metropolitan areas in the United States.

“I love that the image of my mother has been all over the place,” Render said, “It really has given so much visibility to the people who were lost through COVID. It’s more than just the ticker that was on CNN of 500,000 or 600,000 [people]. It’s really giving a face to the people who were lost to COVID.”

Doronilla cared for the incarcerated and the vulnerable at a jail, a population “many people did not want to care for,” said Rendor.

“My mother’s devotion was to be merciful to people,” she said. “She believed that everyone needed care and attention at the end of the day. No matter what your sins were, no matter what your background was, my mother was always there. She recognized the dignity of every person.”

Doronilla came home from work on March 14, 2020, with a cough. About one week later and after numerous visits to urgent care centers where her symptoms were dismissed as allergies or strep throat, Doronilla was admitted to the hospital with a pulse oxygen level of 84. She was intubated the following day.

Three days later, she was diagnosed with COVID-19. She suffered a heart attack on the fifth day, and was prescribed dialysis for failing kidneys on the ninth day. During the two weeks she was in the hospital before she died, none of her family members were able to visit her.

“It’s hard to lose a parent or a loved one, but especially in the time of the coronavirus pandemic,” said Rendor, who works and lives in New Jersey. “I was not able to see her. I was able to drop off toiletries, flowers, and a card to cheer up my mother, but I wasn’t able to come in.”

Perlman said she was struck by the plight of healthcare workers during the pandemic and wanted to do something to honor their sacrifice. The statistics seemed to overshadow “the face behind the statistic,” Perlman said.

“We were banging pots and pans for the ones marching into the hospitals, but it felt like it was getting very anonymous [with the statistics when they died],” Perlman said. “They had given their lives trying to save their fellow human beings. It sort of hit me, ‘What if we had something that we could do that would be very public and that would have a healing aspect to it?’”

Perlman, who has worked in digital art gallery spaces for about 10 years, reached out to artists she knew to ask if they were interested in participating in a portrait project to honor healthcare workers. She also contacted families who had lost loved ones to see if they were interested in participating.

Each family was given access to a portfolio of artists’ work to be able to select the artist and style of art they wanted for the portrait of their loved one. Then, the artist contacted the family to gather photos and stories about the person who died.

“Once I talked to her [Susannah] and I had a sense of what the whole project was about, I was 100 percent on board,” said Scott Papetti, whose mother, MaryBeth Papetti, died on March 24, 2020.

Papetti wanted to make sure that his mother’s love of life was captured in the portrait. Once he chose an artist, he provided the artist with photos and shared some details about his mother’s life to help them get to know who she was.

“One of the things that everyone always talked about when it came to her [my mother] was her smile,” Papetti said. “That’s something that I really wanted to show. Her love of life was unbelievable.”

After MaryBeth died, her body was cremated, but the family was unable to have a memorial service until September 2020. The date they chose was the wedding anniversary of MaryBeth and her husband, Cesare. Two days before the memorial, the portrait arrived in the mail.

“My jaw dropped when I actually saw it live,” Papetti said. “It was so much better upfront and in person. We had it right next to her urn at the memorial and people were really taken aback by it.”

Papetti’s mother was a lifelong Catholic and worked as a nurse in long-term care facilities in northern New Jersey. She was known for her tireless work ethic, Papetti said.

“She was someone who cared a tremendous amount about people, her job, and about life,” he said. “The [Hero Art] project is keeping her memory alive and in a way that people know what she was about. It means the world to the family members who are left [behind].”

One of the biggest challenges of the pandemic, Perlman said, was that a family was not able to gather to grieve or have public funerals.

“All of a sudden this individual who you communicate with every day and who was so much a part of your life, is not, and your ability to say goodbye to them is gone,” Perlman said. “But, when they see their loved one in all these public spaces, and that they’re being honored, they can show that person to their world and share their story.”

Two Hero Art Project portraits hang in a Miami medical clinic: one of Carlos Vallejo, a doctor of internal medicine, and one of his father, Jorge Vallejo, an OB-GYN in the area. The two doctors, both devout Catholics, died just over a month apart in 2020 from COVID-19.

“When patients come into the clinic and see the portraits, they will get emotional,” said Charles Vallejo, son of Carlos and grandson of Jorge. “He never once abandoned his patients and he was with them to the end, no matter what. It’s nice, in a way, to still have them [my father and grandfather] around with the patients, still doing what they love.”

Carlos Vallejo would always talk about his Catholic faith with his patients, Charles said, which “set him apart from a lot of other physicians.”

“A lot of the decisions in patient care had to do with his faith,” said Charles, who is studying medicine to follow in his father’s footsteps. “When his patients had COVID, a lot of people told him, ‘Be careful, don’t touch those patients, don’t see them, but that never deterred him. He continued seeing his patients.”

Like his son, Jorge Vallejo had a “strong zest for life,” Charles said. Jorge escaped communist Cuba in 1965 and settled in Miami, where he delivered babies for almost 40 years. He was passionately pro-life in his work as an OB-GYN, said Charles, and delivered who was, at the time, the most premature baby in the United States. Jorge was also known for treating patients regardless of their income.

“There is something that is just so heartbreaking about the Vallejos, because it was the father and the son who both succumbed to COVID,” Perlman said. “When things are tragic like that, I think everyone’s impetus is to help.”

Perlman recognized that “death becomes a very spiritual thing,” and she wanted to honor each healthcare worker in a way that was respectful to the family and their religious perspective.


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