During the first national lockdown in spring 2020, artist Tom Croft started a series on Instagram entitled ‘Portraits for NHS Heroes’. Working in his studio, listening to the rolling news cycle of the pandemic, Croft found himself unable to work and wanting to help.
For Tom, ‘A portrait is a permanent physical record of someone’s existence. It also immortalises people, as the portraits are likely to last far longer than their subjects.’ He realised that sharing portraits of NHS workers would be one way to raise their status, say thank you, and immortalise their work for future generations. Over 13,000 paintings were created by artists around the world.
One of those portraits, Katie Tomkins, Mortuary and Post-Mortem Services Manager by Roxana Halls is now part of the Science Museum Group’s collection.
‘When I look at Roxana’s painting, I see someone who’s exhausted, slightly burned out, but determined to get the job done. That’s exactly how I felt.’ Katie Tomkins
Natalie Miles-Kemp, Head of Strategy at West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust, nominated her colleague in recognition of Katie’s leadership through the COVID-19 crisis: ‘Katie looks defiant and determined which summarises so much of the mindset of my NHS colleagues throughout the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic.’
Post-mortem and mortuary services are rarely talked about publicly. The few news reports centred on temporary COVID-19 mortuary facilities being set up with a focus on the growing death toll. People working in these services are not often thought of as frontline staff, but still have a crucial role to play in hospital life, a fact which Katie raises as a lesser-known aspect of her team’s work.
Behind each number in the daily report of COVID-19 deaths is a person and a life lived. For those who care for them, including Katie and her team, this is at the heart of how they treat people after death. As the manager of the service, Katie had a huge responsibility to the growing numbers of people who had died, their loved ones and to her team. Katie continued to always be there for the people who needed her, while under colossal stress. Despite her 20 years’ experience working in post-mortem services and anatomical pathology, Katie said ‘Nothing really prepares you for this.’
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has long been worn by those working in post-mortem services to prevent potential infections but extra layers of PPE and enhanced cleaning of their workspaces were all put in place during the pandemic. It was essential that Katie and her team protected themselves from coronavirus for their own health and to ensure their services remained open.
One service that had to be restricted during the pandemic was loved ones coming to view and see people they had lost. Prior to COVID-19, Katie and her team would guide them through the process. For some people, this opportunity to visit can be an important part of their grieving process and coming to terms with their loss. Katie’s team had to adapt the service they provided to ensure they were still able to support grieving families, all while under new challenging conditions.
Listen to Katie in her own words talking about her experience of working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Through a series of video and photographs, artist Roxana Halls got to know Katie and her team and more about the services, respect and care they provide. Roxana said: ‘In combination with [Katie’s] contemporariness, her style suggested for me something of the Rosie the Riveter archetype and the wartime portraits of Dame Laura Knight. I hoped with my portrait to evoke something of the focus, resolve and heroism of Knight’s subjects, placing Katie within the sanitized realm of her highly-skilled and indescribably challenging work.’
Roxana documented her process of painting Katie’s portrait on her Instagram account, sharing details of Katie’s tattoos and PPE before revealing the final and finished image in June 2020.
Katie’s portrait was displayed at the Royal College of Pathologists and for the first time Roxana, Katie and Natalie met in person.
Roxana Halls’ work is ‘interested in posing questions about the ways in which within contemporary culture women are appraised, influenced and policed’. In Episode 1 of BBC Arts series Extraordinary Portraits you can watch Roxana capturing twins, Georgia and Melissa, who survived a near-fatal crocodile attack whilst swimming in Mexico. Episode 1 airs on 27 February on BBC One at 18.30. After it airs you’ll be able to watch it back here.
Art works like Roxana’s portrait provide a glimpse into the bravery and fortitude required of healthcare workers in a crisis, but also of the person beneath the PPE. As well as being a testament to Katie’s career and her work during COVID-19, I for one am comforted to know that there are people like her caring for those that have died, especially at a time when coronavirus has separated family, friends and loved ones.