5 stages of COVID-19: Canadian painter goes from pandemic denial to appreciating its heroes

Tim Okamura was weak from COVID-19 and grieving the death of a cousin to the disease when the hospital across the street began bringing in the body trucks.

Tim Okamura thought masks in NYC were an overreaction. Then he got sick

Artist Tim Okamura with one of the paintings he is working on from his Health Care Heroes series of paintings, inspired by his appreciation of health care workers fighting COVID-19. (Submitted by Tim Okamura)

Last March, Tim Okamura was weak from COVID-19 and grieving the death of a cousin to the disease when the hospital across the street began bringing in the body trucks.

Only a few weeks earlier, the Canadian contemporary artist from Sherwood Park, Alta., had been dismissive of the masked fellow travellers on a flight from Germany ("I sort of thought people were overreacting") and by the masked and gloved fellow New Yorkers when he returned to his Brooklyn home.

"I went to the deli, the same deli that all the hospital workers were going to. I might have gone out to play pool one night and was shaking hands with people," Okamura told CBC News on Friday.  

"A little bit in the back of my mind, I was like, 'Maybe this isn't the greatest idea,' but I was proceeding as normal."

By mid-March, the coronavirus in New York was spreading rapidly and Okamura's denial gave way to a few precautions — he bought masks, gloves and a wildly expensive jug of hand sanitizer.

But then he got a cough that he couldn't shake, followed by chills and soon the realization that he had almost assuredly contracted the disease.

This photo is one that Tim Okamura posted to his Instagram account after he'd begun to recover from the disease. He said the loss of smell, a potential side-effect of COVID-19, was bizarre. (Submitted by Tim Okamura)

Okamura never did get tested — a security guard at the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center warned him off with stories about the shortage of tests and chaos inside — but Okamura didn't really need proof. 

He'd had the chills, body aches, headaches, fatigue, brain fog and the bizarre loss of his sense of smell.

"I tried smelling garlic, nothing. I tried smelling cinnamon, nothing. … The only thing I could slightly smell was like were man-made things like disinfectant, hand sanitizer and that type of thing."

And, if all that wasn't enough, there were the body trucks.

"That was right outside my window. The first truck got set up and that weekend I saw them wheeling bodies out," he recalled. "I looked inside the truck and I could see — and this is pretty grim — like, eight bodies, head-to-toe, on either side of the truck. And then they built shelves, makeshift shelves, so it was basically four levels high." 

As a Canadian living in the United States for the last three decades, Okamura doesn't mince words when describing his dismay at American leadership during the pandemic. But in New York, one of the early hot spots for the virus, residents adopted safe practices that have stuck, he said.

Tim Okamura is a contemporary artist known for his depictions of women of colour. The spirit of that theme is evident in his Health Care Heroes series, like this portrait, which he calls "Rosie." (Submitted by Tim Okamura)

"New York is a good example of how you should handle it and behave," he said. "And then you see the rest of the country and people that are literally getting into fistfights over wearing a mask. 

"Overall, just a chaotic response: a president that downplayed it, lack of preparation, conspiracy versus science."

The reopening of the city's businesses allowed him to start safely getting together with people again, but those encounters also brought him face to face with naysayers and conspiracy theorists among his own social circle. 

"When you're confronted with people who think it's all a conspiracy, it's a bit frustrating. You have to kind of work through the steps of logically kind of deciphering what they're saying, being patient with it," he said.

'Deeply affected by the pandemic'

"It's like the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining and then depression and then finally acceptance," he said. "You can see those stages happening with people, too."

Okamura is known for his paintings that often depict Black Americans with themes of social justice, representation and racial equality. Time Magazine used his painting of Toni Morrison in March's 100 Women of the Year project. In Edmonton, he is represented by the Peter Robertson Gallery.

In all, Okamura was laid low by the disease for more than two months. His studio, filled with 30-odd unfinished paintings, speaks to its lingering effects, he said.

Artist Tim Okamura with COVID-19 unit nurses at NYU Langone Health. (Submitted by Tim Okamura)

But while 2020 has been an unproductive year for him as an artist, it's also been a time in which he has learned and grown, he said. He has a richer relationship with his parents, a new gratitude for his immune system and a deep appreciation for the opportunity to do some "soul searching and kind of coming to grips with your humanity."

It has also opened up a new artistic door, with a series of paintings he has planned called Health Care Heroes, which will include portraits of nurses from COVID-19 units in Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta and a portrait of three emergency doctors from the Wyckoff.

He said most of the portraits will be gifted to the nurses, while a few group portraits will be sold with some proceeds going to a organization chosen by the medical professionals. 

It's a fitting tribute from the artist who has journeyed through the five stages, from denial to acceptance, and now wants to go one step further.

"I have been deeply affected by the pandemic on many levels, and wanted to show my appreciation for the heroic work of the doctors and nurses."


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