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Editors' Expressions: Therapy Through Art

"Editors' Expressions" is a recurring feature in which the EMS World editorial staff ruminates on current news, noteworthy events and everyday happenings with relevance to healthcare and EMS delivery. Feel free to react in the comment box below or e-mail editor@emsworld.com.

The editorial department of EMS World has no shortage of submissions that fall on the more creative and personal side of expression—we’ve had everything from music videos to poems to serialized fiction writing sent to us, with the hopes of being published or shared with our readers. They range from the silly to the serious and encompass all degrees of quality and merit.

I learned quite early on in my work with EMS World that this can be a particularly passionate and expressive group of healthcare professionals that take true enjoyment and satisfaction in connecting with others—whether that’s through communal meals, bonding time, shared stories of the job or other deep, meaningful gestures. Artistic expression seems to be one manner of forging those connections. It’s a way of bringing people together while processing the very visceral emotions that arise out of the unique, difficult and very human endeavor that is EMS work.

Kate Bergen has been a paramedic for AtlantiCare EMS in southern New Jersey for the past nine years. While she recalls her mother saying that Kate was drawing as young as three years old, she never took up painting with any seriousness until about age 18. Even then it was more of a background hobby and later, a way to support the side business she operates with her woodworking husband.

That is, until 2020 set in.

Like so many EMS providers, Kate found herself having increasing difficulty handling the stresses of 9-1-1 work as a first responder during the COVID pandemic.

“I was never prone to job-related anxiety, depression or any of the emotional effects that confront so many of my colleagues,” Bergen told me in a recent conversation. “That all changed with COVID.”

The once-enthusiastic medic began experiencing panic attacks and dreading the next call. “It’s like those cartoons when someone is dragged kicking and screaming against their will,” she said. “That’s how I felt having to go back to the same nursing home I was at just the call before, and not being able to help someone other than giving them a ride to the hospital.”

Compounding the anxiety was the overwhelming dread that she or her husband, an ICU nurse and medic, would bring home the virus to their two young sons.

“It was a literal paralyzing fear,” she shares. “Something I never experienced before.”

When Bergen saw a photo she’d taken of herself wearing a respirator, inspiration struck. The painting that had always been an afterthought became a passion to both pour her emotions onto a canvas and to celebrate her female colleagues on the front lines of the COVID pandemic. Her series "Modern Day Rosies," inspired by the classic World War II “Rosie the Riveter” character, have proven to be an enormously popular way to commemorate the often-unheralded women of EMS, as well as those in other essential job services. "So many of these women deserve recognition for all their hard work," she says. "I am just trying to give that voice."

The idea stems from, “You can help us by staying home, practicing social distancing and helping to flatten the curve,” she says.

Orders have poured in from across the globe—especially following a segment on ABC’s “Good Morning America” earlier this summer. Bergen had to turn the phone off because she couldn’t keep up with the demand. “Clearly these pieces mean something to women,” Bergen says. “They are fiercely proud of what they do.”

While Bergen is thrilled for the support, and hopes to exhibit in the future, commercial success was never her end goal. “I was in such a dark place,” she says. “I truly thought there was no way out for me. And I know I’m not alone. My only hope is that others in the same situation as I was can find an outlet so they can cope.”

View Kate’s creations at jbergenstudios.com or, for a more personal glimpse into her work, follow her at facebook.com/bergenstudios. 10% of proceeds are donated to Mission Hope, providing support for New Jersey first responders and their families who are struggling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Jonathan Bassett is editorial director at EMS World. Reach him at jon@emsworld.com

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