Doctor's paintings make lasting impression on bereaved families

When a patient under Dr. Marisa Azad's care died in 2017, she created a digital painting for his family. Now she's studying the intimate link between art and grieving.

Dr. Marisa Azad's stirring images capture spirit of lost loved ones

Dr. Marisa Azad, an infectious disease fellow at the University of Ottawa who works at The Ottawa Hospital, creates digital artworks for families of patients who have died. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Dr. Marisa Azad was working a late shift during her residency at a hospital in Hamilton, Ont., in 2017 when she was called to the room of a patient who'd been pronounced dead after a long illness.

When she arrived, she found 37-year-old Chris Springle's weeping family gathered around his bed, surrounded by the drawings and sculptures Springle had created before he became critically ill.

Azad left the hospital that night emotionally exhausted, but when she got home she felt there was something she needed to do.

"In my stupor, I sat down and I just started painting," said Azad, an infectious disease fellow at the University of Ottawa who works at the General campus of The Ottawa Hospital.  

"I just sat there for hours and hours and hours, and I created this first painting," she said. "I thought, I want to create something that celebrates this young man's life."

Azad created this image, titled Tooth of the Lion, for the family of Chris Springle, a patient who died in 2017. Each element within the image has special significance. (Submitted by Marisa Azad)

'A reminder of him'

Azad had always felt her brain was "split between science and art." As a girl, she painted with oils until severe allergies forced her to trade her brush and canvas for a digital stylus and graphic tablet.

To create that first piece, Azad drew on memories Springle's family had shared with her about his artistry, his kindness and the importance of his Mohawk heritage. She created a metaphorical visualization of his story and presented it to the family.

'I see it every morning when I wake it and it it reminds me of him,' said Deb Springle from her home in Fernie, B.C. (Submitted by Deb Springle)

"I see it every morning when I wake up," said the young man's mother, Deb Springle. "It's a reminder of him."

Springle said Azad's creation had "all the right images," including a purple-throated hummingbird, which signifies both creativity and spiritual guidance in the Mohawk tradition, and the dandelions her son made into herbal tea. 

Azad has since created nine more paintings to give to bereaved families, and has collected her observations in a research paper titled Art-ICU Project. 

Ottawa doctor using art to help grieving families heal

CBC News Ottawa

25 days ago
Dr. Marisa Azad says she began using her artistic talents to help grieving families after seeing what they went through in the intensive care unit. Since then, she’s created a total of ten paintings to honour patients who have died. 1:04

"I found it very therapeutic, for both myself and the multiple families that I have gifted paintings to over the years," she said. "They said, 'Just having you talk with us and being able to share stories about our loved one with you really helped us to navigate the grieving process.'" 

Azad's artistic output hasn't gone unnoticed by fellow physicians including Dr. Francois Auclair, an infectious disease specialist at The Ottawa Hospital.

"The response of the families that she got from her artwork, that validates her art and its effect," Auclair confirmed.

Azad is an infectious disease fellow at the University of Ottawa working at the General campus of The Ottawa Hospital. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Themes of isolation, loneliness

Now, Auclair and his wife Jennifer Toby have commissioned Azad to create a piece that captures how the pandemic has engulfed the health-care system. 

Toby is a founder of Creative Wellbeing, a foundation that works with the Ottawa Art Gallery to foster links between medicine and the arts. 

She said she's not expecting Azad's creation to "scream COVID," but to subtly illustrate the stress on both doctors and patients during the pandemic through colour and symbolism.

"Her work is expressive, it is also metaphorical, but can be easily grasped by anybody," said Toby. 

So far, Azad has presented paintings to 10 families who have lost loved ones in the ICU. (Submitted by Marisa Azad)

Auclair believes Azad is uniquely qualified to express "the isolation ... and the loneliness and all this sensory deprivation that patients felt when they cannot see their loved ones and cannot touch their loved ones.... This is a very painful experience." 

The finished work will eventually hang in the new Ottawa Hospital, being constructed on land east of the Civic campus.

Azad titled this image What the Garden Showed Me. (Submitted by Marisa Azad)


  • An earlier version of this story wrongly identified Jennifer Toby's foundation as Creative Wellness. Its name is Creative Wellbeing.
    Apr 15, 2021 9:50 AM ET


Sandra Abma


Sandra Abma is a veteran CBC arts journalist. If you have an event or idea you want to share, please do at