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    Heart and Art: The two worlds of Chetna Singh

    Heart and Art: The two worlds of Chetna Singh

    Heart and Art: The two worlds of Chetna Singh
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    By Lavina Melwani   IST (Updated)


    An ER physician finds pandemic respite in painting a beautiful world.

    Meet Dr Chetna Singh, emergency care physician at Ocean Medical Center in New Jersey. For the last year, she has grappled with the unending coronavirus pandemic, working the frontline in the emergency room.  Right from the first beginnings through the first wave to the second wave life has been lived out with the sombre reality of packed hospitals, with patients on ventilators and near death, fighting against a relentless virus.
    For Chetna, whose husband Arun is also an ER physician, work means long 12-hour days, including a 50-minute commute each way.  She’s been doing this work for 18 years but COVID-19 has changed everything: “This is just something totally different, we've never encountered anything like this, and its life-changing for us,” she says.
    “When the pandemic first started, everybody was scared. We were scared too, just going in and putting our lives at risk every single day. Over time you get over the fear and you do the best you can to protect yourself and protect others, and you just have to take the proper precautions. We’ve got three children so we try to be protective of both the home and the hospital.”
    The Singhs have seen the toughest part of the pandemic with the country in the throes of Covid-19 with escalating cases, inadequate supplies and overrun hospitals. The worst she says was “just seeing people struggling to breathe and sometimes you’re at a loss, even with all the support you have, you cannot help them to survive. The worst is probably just seeing them die alone. There have been days where I have had to call multiple families on one day and tell them that we can't do anything anymore.”
    Sometimes she finds herself in the position of calling families to tell them their loved one needs to be put on a ventilator and knowing that the patient will be alone, scared and with no family member to hold on to.  It has been heart-wrenching but, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, with the vaccinations finally being administered, first to the healthcare workers and the elderly.
    Having her spouse in the same field has been a great support. As she says, “It’s an absolute blessing because we can talk to each other about it, and that, I think, really does help to de-stress.”
    What really helps Chetna to build resilience and face the tough times is the other world she inhabits – the world of an artist. Growing up in Patna, the daughter of two professors, she was always encouraged to paint and found inspiration in the colours, the beauty and the cultural mix that is India. Over the years even as she attended medical school in Patna and later became a medical professional, she turned to art to relax and create.
    While she’s always worked on canvas, she was intrigued by the thought of wearable art and launched a very popular line of art scarves in 2013 with her artwork digitally printed on luxurious scarves of silk, cotton, cashmere and chiffon. Over the years, Chetna Singh scarves are almost like art stories, reflections of her travel to India, Mexico, Paris, Venice and Istanbul with renderings of Buddhas, butterflies, horses and florals.   She says, “Art is more beautiful when it is shared and even more beautiful when it is worn.” Chetna has shown her work in Fashion Week in NYC and her line is carried by boutiques and online.
    Sometimes, her two worlds intersect. As a child she had often played at being doctor, injecting her family with pretend vaccines with talcum powder and knitting needles. Now that she is a real doctor, she is often inspired to paint canvases of ER physicians. As she wrote on Facebook recently after a rough day in the hospital: “The last few days have been stressful to say the least. On my day off from the ER I painted this today. For all my frontliners - physicians, nurses, mid-levels, techs, medics, EMTs and all other staff - this one is for you.”
    Prints of this powerful portrait were sold to support those who have been affected financially by the pandemic. This portrait of an ER physician kneeling down in exhaustion, yet still not giving up and continuing to fight is right from the heart. She says, “That’s the way I felt – it’s like we are all burnt out, totally exhausted but we continue to fight every day.”
    Art is certainly her creative outlet and respite from the pressure cooker of the ER. What does she suggest for others who are facing the stress of the pandemic? “You have to find something that makes you happy, find joy in something that you do, whether it is talking to a friend on the phone or sharing a glass of wine on Zoom,” she says. “It's whatever makes you happy because  the world as we know it has changed and it’s going to be some time before it goes back to where it was.”
    Indeed, the past was always about an adventurous journey to many parts of the world as Chetna translated those scenes into impressions on silk and cashmere scarves. Travel will not be on the agenda for a long time and she now relies on memories of the past to paint the magic of a lost world.
    Recently as health professionals, the Singhs got their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine and she encourages everyone to get their vaccinations as they become available.  She says 15- 20% of people may have side-effects similar to the flu, usually 12 hours after vaccination. “In our case, I was the one with fever, chills and body aches for 24 hours and milder symptoms after, but this was completely resolved by 48 hours. I would absolutely do it again as it means that it gives me protection against Covid.”
    (Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina. Read her columns here.)
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