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COVID ICU physician will publicly display his pandemic-inspired artwork for the first time as a “thank you” to fellow health care workers


TEDxChicago will feature the artwork of Justin Fiala, MD, a Northwestern Medicine pulmonary and critical care specialist, who cared for COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic

Dr. Justin Fiala at TEDxChicago

CHICAGO, IL – September 19, 2023 – For the last three years, Justin Fiala, MD, has experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows while caring for critically ill COVID-19 patients in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He turned to oil painting as a form of therapy to release anxiety and stress through the height of the pandemic, the death of George Floyd, politicization of masking and the vaccine debate. Dr. Fiala’s art collection will publicly be displayed for the first time at TEDxChicago, a public event happening on Friday, Oct. 6, from 2-7 p.m. at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

“Painting has been a way for me to interpret the world around us and focus on the good instead of the bad. It’s always been my goal to publicly showcase my artwork, and I’m incredible honored to be chosen for TEDxChicago this year,” said Dr. Fiala, a pulmonary and critical care specialist with the Northwestern Medicine Canning Thoracic Institute. “When I was caring for COVID patients on a daily basis, it was hard not to internalize things. Critical care medicine is such a heavy field, and the visual arts have been a godsend for helping me process the gravity of it all.”

Dr. Fiala started painting as a child, but as life became busier with college and medical training, painting was pushed to the side. It wasn’t until the COVID pandemic hit that Dr. Fiala picked up his paint brush again, and started painting different scenes that were happening around him.

One painting shows a hand giving the peace sign with a mask hanging from the wrist. (See photo.)

Painting - Peace sign with mask

“I was inspired to paint the hand displaying the peace sign amid the first glimpse of optimism during the summer of 2021. The dark-skinned hand is a nod to the racial disparities laid bare by the pandemic and the social justice movements that arose in its wake, while the 'V' it's signaling can be taken as representing peace, victory, and/or vaccination. The mask dangling at the wrist is a reminder to stay vigilant and continue masking when appropriate to protect the most vulnerable around us,” said Dr. Fiala.

Another painting depicts a COVID patient on ECMO – a life support machine that does the work of the heart and lungs. (See photo.)  

"The painting of the patient on ECMO explores some of the existential quagmires this kind of exceptional life support creates – for instance, a patient may be fully awake, aware that their lungs aren’t improving, and also inescapably aware that the only thing keeping them alive is the machine. As a doctor caring for these patients, I couldn't help but picture myself in that situation and wonder what decisions I'd make."

Dr. Fiala also donated a painting to Northwestern Memorial’s MICU called “Many Moons in the Medical ICU,” dedicated to the physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists and staff who risked their lives on the front lines. The painting hangs in The Renewal Room, a place for staff members who provide direct patient care to rest, reflect and unwind.

“This painting is recognition for the day in and day out sacrifices being made by front line health care workers, and it’s a love letter to my colleagues at Northwestern Medicine,” said Dr. Fiala. “The pandemic weighed particularly heavily on health care, and it has been heartbreaking to see so many of the colleagues that trained me – be they physicians, nurses, pharmacists, etc. – being driven out of the healing professions due to burnout and moral injury. To that end, I hope my art serves as a colorful 'thank you' to all my fellow health care workers who showed up early in the pandemic, kept showing up throughout, and are somehow continuing to persevere through it all."

Painting - Many Moons in the MICU

TEDxChicago is offering a 20% discount on tickets to health care workers, first responders and students who write their occupation title at checkout and use the promo code TEDXCHICAGOLOVESTUDENTS8U4G.

The ticket is all-inclusive to the TEDxChicago experience, which includes seven TEDxChicago talks and over three live performances from the TEDxChicago stage; food and beverages from local vendors; and many opportunities to engage with local artists and fellow Chicagoans.

“TEDxChicago’s 2023 event is designed to encapsulate Chicago’s rich history of championing togetherness and embracing creativity in times of change,” said Dustin Huibregste, director and lead curator for TEDxChicago. “This immersive gathering beckons attendees to seize the spotlight, signifying an unwavering commitment to progress and unity.”

For more information, to purchase tickets, and to view the full biographies of speakers, performers, and event updates, visit