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Teen’s art honors those who died after treating coronavirus patients

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 16, 2020

By Elizabeth Lawrence Special to the Washington Post

As Xinyi Christine Zhang watched the pandemic death toll among health-care workers rise this spring, she wanted to find a way to give solace – and thanks – to their families.

The 15-year-old joined her church in South Brunswick Township, N.J., in commemorating members who had died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But she was driven to try to do more, something personal.

“I thought there could be something more meaningful I could do for the families of the doctors who lost their lives fighting the pandemic,” Christine said.

A gifted artist, Christine resolved to draw the fallen U.S. health-care workers in colorful memorial portraits, distribute them to their families and post them on her website. She wanted the relatives to know that people appreciated those who were trying to help Americans while putting their own lives in jeopardy.

According to Kaiser Health News and The Guardian’s “Lost on the Frontline” project, more than 900 health-care workers in the United States have died after helping treat patients who have the coronavirus. The pandemic has overburdened many hospitals and led to shortages in protective equipment such as masks and gowns that endangered many of those assisting patients.

Christine found her subjects through that project. She set up a website to upload her portraits and to let families request drawings of their loved ones. Her portraits are free and easily accessible online, Christine said.

She has finished and posted 16 portraits since she started in April. Each one takes six to eight hours to complete, and Christine spreads that work out over a few days so as not to interfere with her school assignments. Using a close-up image as a reference, she first digitally sketches the proportions of the person’s face with a pencil and then adds colors to “really bring life to the portrait.”

Her largest obstacle is getting in touch with the families. She said she hopes more families will request portraits through her website,, so she can work with them from the beginning.

One person Christine featured is Sheena Miles, a semiretired nurse from Mississippi who died of COVID-19 on May 1. Christine tracked down her son, Tom Miles, who expressed his gratitude on Facebook.

“When you’re going through a loss like that, like the loss of a mom, to get the email from out of the blue just kind of gives you a profound feeling that there are some good people in this world,” Tom Miles said in an interview. “For her to have such talent at such a young age, and that she really cares about people she doesn’t even know – she is what makes America what it is today.”

This response is what Christine aims for – she wants the families to know that she is thankful for the work of their loved ones. “Someone they don’t know personally, even a stranger, appreciates what their loved one has done,” she said.

The portraits may be a source of brightness for grieving families, said Christine’s mother, Helen Liu.

“I hope that families who receive these portraits will have a feeling of hope that better times will come,” Liu said. “A memorial is something meaningful and permanent, and I feel her portraits capture the happiness that will forever be with them.”

This report is a product of Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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