MURRAY — Heather Olsen said she grew up admiring her older sister, who has worked as a nurse for over a decade.
So when the COVID-19 pandemic reached Utah and the rest of the country last year, she couldn't shake the image of her sister from her mind as she came across updates on the coronavirus.
"Basically, when I watched the news, I saw all the health care workers. I saw her," Olsen said, reflecting on the earliest days of the pandemic. "Just how tired they were, exhausted. And I remembered all the times she came home exhausted."
As the pandemic lingered, Olsen, who is a Utah artist, wanted to do whatever she could to honor the many front-line health care workers who helped patients, especially during times when not very much was known about COVID-19. She also spoke with her sister, who suggested that she paint health care workers.
A year after the pandemic hit Utah in earnest, Olsen helped unveil her latest art piece, which honors the many front-line caregivers in the state. The artwork combines several images of nurses, doctors, technicians and other caregivers. They are portraits of men and women in their personal protective gear as they handled the toughest COVID-19 cases.
To honor the healthcare workers who saved countless lives during the pandemic, Utah artist Heather Olsen contributed a special painting in their honor called "Together, we can do this." Watch how this came to life and the reaction of caregivers as they see it for the first time. pic.twitter.com/hjzBY43A36— Intermountain (@Intermountain) April 5, 2021
Intermountain Healthcare officials said copies of the artwork will be displayed at Intermountain hospitals and other facilities across the state in the coming weeks. A handful of caregivers were present as Olsen and Amy Christensen, vice president and chief nursing officer for specialty-based care at Intermountain Healthcare, pulled down a cloth to reveal the piece during a heartfelt ceremony Monday.
Elizabeth Hyde, an intensive care unit nurse, found meaning in the different images portrayed in the painting. For her, it was a reminder of the front-line teamwork inside hospitals to help the sickest patients.
Heather's painting helped me realize my own strengths and the things I can do for myself, as a nurse, and for the patients and the people in this community.
–Elizabeth Hyde, intensive care unit nurse for Intermountain Healthcare
According to the Utah health department, over 15,000 Utahns have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 since March 2020. While there still are over 100 current coronavirus-related hospitalizations statewide, that number is significantly less than the 606 coronavirus-related hospitalizations Utah saw in a day by the end of 2020.
"Throughout the entire hospital, we had to work as a team one with another," Hyde said. "The (emergency room) to the shock trauma ICU to the respiratory therapist: we were all there supporting one another and helping us through such a difficult time."
That teamwork went beyond one specific hospital. Hyde was one of the 100 or so Intermountain Healthcare caregivers who traveled to New York City in the spring of 2020 to help when hospitals there were overrun.
When she returned, she was given a painting from Olsen. Hyde fought back tears as she reflected on the moment she saw herself in that painting.
"It just kind of gave me that boost that I needed," she said. "Heather's painting helped me realize my own strengths and the things I can do for myself, as a nurse, and for the patients and the people in this community."
New York caregivers ultimately returned the favor later in 2020 when Utah's hospitals started to fill up with COVID-19 patients.
Maria Black, a nurse administrator at Utah Valley Hospital, was taken aback by the teamwork captured in Olsen's painting. She said she was hesitant to speak Monday because it was an "emotional day" following a long year for front-line workers.
She attended to provide Spanish language assistance nevertheless.
"This painting — this work of art — recognizes all of those individuals, all the nurses, and all who have taken care of patients in a year that we didn't know what to expect, or we didn't know what to do to help our patients," she said, in a speech translated by KSL.com.
"As nurses, as part of a medical team, we have worked together. We have cried together. We have had joy together. We have cared for patients, families, and even our own (medical personnel) that suffered from the infection of the disease," she continued, holding back tears as she spoke. "It's part of who we are, and it's part of who we will be in the future."
Jay Larsen, an emergency room nurse for Intermountain Healthcare, was captivated by Olsen's choice of rich colors in the painting. For him, that symbolized the resilience of the staff as they worked together as one.
He took it as a reminder of what he and his colleagues are capable of in times of need.
"Additionally, one other thing I noticed today in this painting is the looks on all the staff's faces. (It) shows strength that has never been seen before," he added. "Our staff, our teams are able to take care of what we need to do."
Olsen explained that she tries to put herself into the mindset of the subject of her work. Through her sister, she was also able to meet people in other fields of front-line medicine.
Much like the early days of the pandemic, she tried to envision her sister and the other health care workers she met as she painted.
"I pictured actual people and what they might be going through," she said.
The caregivers who attended Monday's ceremony said the past year has been quite difficult for them and their colleagues. They've celebrated the achievements of their patients and mourned those who died from COVID-19.
Hyde said the past year provided many moments where she questioned whether she wanted to be a nurse. Through it all, she said she's grateful she's kept going.
"Regardless of the highs and lows, these touching moments will certainly define us forever," Christensen added. "It is our hope that all caregivers, no matter if they work at the bedside or they support those who do will see this gesture from Heather as a recognition of their efforts through a very tough pandemic, and provide some hope for the future."
As for Olsen, she said she hopes people will look at her painting as a reminder of the sacrifices front-line workers made, especially during the periods of unknown and uncertainty during the pandemic.
"I hope when health care workers look at this painting — and everyone looks at this painting — you're reminded of everything you accomplished. How you got us through the tough times of COVID-19 and all the people you've helped," she said. "People are alive because of you."
Contributing: Xoel Cardenas, KSL.com