While the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown chaos into everyone’s lives during 2020—a year also plagued with incidents of racial injustice and a polarizing presidential election—there is value in meditating on the joys of this unusual year.
“Reflecting on the unique challenges of 2020, members of IU Health and IU School of Medicine at all levels—staff, students, residents, fellows, faculty and administrators—have continued to perform their duties and engage in patient care, education and research despite the incredible stressors brought by COVID-19, along with civil and political unrest,” said Jennifer Hartwell, MD, associate dean and chief wellness officer for IU School of Medicine. “Many people have found ways to be hopeful, share joy, demonstrate resilience and process the uncertainties of 2020 through creative endeavors.”
Hartwell is the visionary behind the Sharing Joy Project, which encourages members of the medical school and health system to submit photos of “anything that brings personal joy.” The resulting online gallery provides a “joy break” for anyone who might be feeling overwhelmed, or just wants to smile!
Like some others, Hartwell finds joy in nature on her daily runs. She submitted a snapshot of a wooden footbridge along her running route, surrounded by lovely fall color. Hartwell describes the joy of outdoor exercise as “a way to unplug from the world and enjoy a sacred time for reflection … I let my mind wander, mile after mile.”
Others find joy in tending to a garden, visiting the lake, cooking with family, playing a tune on the piano, or simply snuggling a pet. Susie Bell, manager of Healthy Results for IU Health, rescued a dog named Elmer in August, one week before she and her husband became “empty nesters.”
“He gets us out of bed, walks us every day, and reminds us to laugh and play,” Bell said.
Resident physician Lydia Fischer, MD, and her partner decided to get four baby chicks this summer. She submitted a photo of cute and fluffy “Phillys” to the Sharing Joy Project. “It has truly been surprising how much joy they have brought to our lives,” Fischer said.
Kate Ruley-Haase, a lab manager and research technician at IU School of Medicine, was inspired to paint a portrait of her cat, Spot. She also found joy in jewelry-making and baking a Tudor meat pie with her family, inspired by watching “The Great British Baking Show.”
Graduate student Elizabeth Swallow also finds joy in baking. Her contribution to the project’s gallery is a tantalizing photo of fresh-baked bread entitled “Loaves of Joy” with this description: “It’s fairly simple: looks good, smells good, tastes good. Makes me happy.”
While many people are celebrating the simple joys of life, others are profoundly thankful for major blessings and “joyful moments” in the midst of an extremely difficult year. Neonatal nurse practitioner Mary Martin-Hemphill created a collage of family photos she titled “2020 Joy Wins.”
The collage highlights beautiful family moments like her daughter’s wedding in June, a new grand-nephew born in July, a motorcycle group ride to Story, Indiana, and the high school graduation of a nephew who battled, and won, his fight against leukemia. 2020 also brought some extreme difficulties. The daughter smiling in her wedding photo saw her new husband undergo brain surgery less than three weeks later to remove a fast-growing germinoma tumor. Five months later, he remains hospitalized with serious complications, but the family is thankful his mind is sharp and he is making progress toward healing.
“Making that collage was very therapeutic for me,” Martin-Hemphill said. “The backdrop of the collage is flowers in my flowerbed that refused to stop blooming until late November—they seem to be telling us to never quit.”
2020 brought Mary Dankoski, PhD, the opportunity to stitch several quilts, the most meaningful being a panel she created for the Social Justice Sewing Academy Remembrance Project. Her quilt square honors Meadow Pollack, who was killed on February 14, 2018, in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
“I tried to evoke a sunny meadow filled with flowers and butterflies,” explained Dankoski, executive associate dean for Faculty Affairs, Professional Development and Diversity at IU School of Medicine. “The cross-stitch panel was made by my oldest daughter, who was a senior in the class of 2018, just like Meadow.”
Like Dankoski, research analyst Abbi Smith put her creative energies into making meaningful projects with her hands. For her husband, who did his doctorate studies on the plasticity of the visual systems of cichlid fish, she embroidered “retinol neurons.” For a friend, Smith learned a new art form: 3D embroidery. The resulting piece gives rich texture to the hair of two friends looking at puffy, white clouds together.
“I really enjoyed trying this new technique and making a meaningful gift for my best friend,” Smith said.
Elizabeth Thompson painted a landscape of Michigan’s Pearl Lake for her sister-in-law, who owns a cabin in the woods where Thompson and her husband recently enjoyed a peaceful retreat.
“I haven’t painted much in the last several years, mostly due to time constraints,” said Thompson, a service line administrator for IU Health whose husband is a nurse practitioner. “Between his and my job, it’s been a highly stressful year! I was able to sit at the kitchen table, looking out the picture window, and paint the view. It was the most relaxing vacation I have had in years.”
Medical student Leah Amstutz picked up “scrap” yarn leftover from a wool sweater she knitted eight years ago and made some fingerless mittens to match.
“I love knitting. It can be simple and relaxing, or so complicated, creative and challenging,” she said.
Dela Velez, a medical assistant with IU Health, took up painting during the pandemic.
“Ever since, I haven’t stopped,” she said. “Painting has been super therapeutic to me and has brought joy. I even have my four year old painting with me from time to time!”
Angela DeCamp, an executive administrative assistant with IU School of Medicine, has been creating gouache (opaque watercolor) paintings during the pandemic. She submitted a peaceful scene from New South Wales for the Sharing Joy Project.
“This recent piece is from a stressful time in my life where I felt truly lost. It reminds me of how restorative the quiet moments can be when you’re surrounded by chaos,” she said. “Even in times of uncertainty, peacefulness can be found, and those moments deserve to be appreciated. 2020 has been nothing if not tumultuous. While we strive to seek justice, to heal, and to carry on, we should also allow time to breathe so that we can keep fighting another day.”
This exemplifies the spirit of the Sharing Joy Project, said Hartwell. Creative submissions from members of the IU School of Medicine and IU Health community will continue to be welcomed as we head into the new year.
Is it time you took a joy break?
Bookmark the Sharing Joy Gallery and visit often to see the creative works and moments that are bringing joy to others during this challenging time.
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Laura is a senior writer with the Office of Strategic Communications. A native Hoosier, she has 25 years of experience in communications, having worked with newspapers and other media organizations in Indiana and Florida, along with small businesses, community groups and non-profit organizations. Before joining IU School of Medicine in January 2020, she was editor-in-chief of a lifestyle magazine serving the community of Estero, Florida.