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USC hospital lightened the mood with sticker drawings for visitors. Then things got political

At Keck Hospital of USC, staff tried to provide a little levity by doodling on stickers worn by employees and patients after they had been screened for coronavirus symptoms.
(Ricardo Carrasco III / Keck Medicine of USC)

The humble doodle has found itself at the center of a discussion about public art at Keck Hospital of USC.

Medical center workers, equipped with black Sharpie pens, have been drawing on ginormous, bright-green circular stickers that patients and staff have been wearing since mid-March to show that they have been screened for coronavirus symptoms and have sanitized their hands. The screening staff, which is creating the sticker art for all who pass through the hospital’s doors, say it has helped alleviate stress from the health crisis.

“When the pandemic started, a lot of our staff were frightened,” Annette Sy, the chief nursing officer who oversees the staff conducting screenings, said. “Even though we’re sanitizing and wearing masks, we still have COVID-19 in our environment. The art, it livens things up, adds flavor and humor. It’s helped people say, ‘We’re all in this together.’”

Christina Shen, an occupational therapist at Keck Medical Center of USC, creates new sticker art.
(Ricardo Carrasco III / Keck Medicine of USC)

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By early April, the halls of the hospital were filled with doctors, nurses and patients who’d come for essential procedures, many sporting hearts and smiley faces, ice cream cones and flowering trees on their shirts. Familiar characters, like SpongeBob SquarePants, were appearing on stickers, as did a phrase from USC’s fight song: “Fight On.” (Patients who arrived visibly ill and were suspected of having COVID-19 were screened in a tent outside and taken into isolation, so they didn’t get stickers.)

Then politics happened.

Stickers began appearing with “Biden 2020” or “Trump Make America Great Again” on them, which some people found offensive. Two weeks ago the hospital put an end to the sticker art.

“We stopped it because we were reminding people we’re a multicultural, scholarly community and diversity enriches all our activities and interactions,” Sy said. “The artwork has to be inclusive and without religious or political beliefs.”

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Staff members complained, verbally and in emails, asking when the sticker art would resume. Some said it was the highlight of their day; others had been choosing entrances because they knew certain artists would be there. The daily ritual of picking out which piece of art to wear for the day while mingling — at a distance — with others from different parts of the hospital had become an anticipated social event, said the director of patient and family experience, Kaitlin Alderete.

“It was something we all looked forward to. You could really engage with each other and have a more meaningful relationship,” she said, recalling that on St. Patrick’s Day, staff wore four-leaf clovers. “Good luck charms.”

The artistic hand of Faith Robinson, an RN at Keck Medical Center of USC.
(Ricardo Carrasco III / Keck Medicine of USC)

So Alderete and others came up with guidelines that she said are more in alignment “with USC’s code of ethics,” including being respectful of religious and political beliefs and being mindful that the USC community is diverse.

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The sticker art resumed last week.

Juan Aguayo, a surgical technician at Keck Medical Center of USC, taps into his artistic side.
(Ricardo Carrasco III / Keck Medicine of USC)

The latest standout, Sy said, is a series of hearts, lungs, kidneys and livers, realistically rendered by physical therapist Yasaman Barzi. They’re traced from an anatomy book and nod to the hospital’s transplant surgeries.

“It’s been very meditative; it’s helped me balance,” Barzi said of her art. “With all the stress and uncertainty we have right now, this offers a hopeful moment. It’s a distraction.”

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Sy envisions the sticker art being around for some time.

“We’re waiting for guidance from the Department of Public Health and CDC, but I feel we’re gonna be wearing masks and screening for a while. And as long as we have the green stickers, the art will continue.”


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