As Xinyi Christine Zhang watched the COVID-19 death toll among health care workers rise this spring, she wanted to find a way to give solace — and thanks — to their families.
The teenager, of South Brunswick Township, New Jersey, joined her church in commemorating members who had died of COVID-19. But she was driven to try to do more, something personal.
“I thought there could be something more meaningful I could do for the families of the doctors who lost their lives fighting the pandemic,” said Christine, 15.
A gifted artist, Christine resolved to draw the fallen U.S. health care workers in colorful memorial portraits, distribute them to their families and post them on her website. She wanted the relatives to know that people appreciated those who were trying to help Americans heal while putting their own lives in jeopardy.
Christine frequently draws portraits for her friends and knew memorial portraits are usually rather expensive. She realized that drawing front-line workers could actually help families and was a better use of her time than drawing her friends — whom she said she’d drawn “like 10 times already.”
According to KHN and The Guardian’s “Lost on the Frontline” project, more than 900 health care workers in the United States have died after helping patients battle the coronavirus. The pandemic overburdened many hospitals and led to shortages in protective equipment such as masks and gowns that endangered many of those assisting patients.
Christine found her subjects through that project. She set up a website to upload her portraits and to let families request drawings of their loved ones. Her portraits are free and easily accessible online, Christine said.
She has finished and posted 17 portraits since she started in late April. Each one takes six to eight hours, and Christine spreads that work out over a few days so as not to interfere with her school assignments. Using a close-up image as a reference, she first digitally sketches the proportions of the person’s face with a pencil and then adds unique colors to “really bring life to the portrait.”
Her largest obstacle is getting in touch with the families. She hopes more families will request portraits through her website so she can work with them from the beginning.
One person Christine featured is Sheena Miles, a semiretired nurse from Mississippi who died of COVID-19 on May 1. Christine tracked down her son, Tom Miles, who expressed his gratitude on Facebook.
“When you’re going through a loss like that, like the loss of a mom, to get the email from out of the blue just kind of gives you a profound feeling that there are some good people in this world,” Tom Miles said in an interview. “For her to have such talent at such a young age, and that she really cares about people she doesn’t even know — she is what makes America what it is today.”
This kind of response is exactly what Christine aims for — she wants the families to know that she is thankful for the work of their loved ones.
“Someone they don’t know personally, even a stranger, appreciates what their loved one has done,” she said.
The portraits may be a source of brightness for grieving families, said Christine’s mother, Helen Liu.
“I hope that families who receive these portraits will have a feeling of hope that better times will come,” Liu said. “A memorial is something meaningful and permanent, and I feel her portraits capture the happiness that will forever be with them.”
She hopes to get additional requests for the memorials from families.
In addition to drawing, Christine is a member of the South Brunswick High School’s Science Olympiad team and helps build projects for competitions. She’s interested in exploring engineering or product design as a career. Anything related to building or creating, she said.
She plans to either major or minor in art in college. For now, she wants to continue this project throughout high school — hopefully with help from others who know how to create digital art. She has a form on her website where others with art experience can sign up to help out. She said they can also add “other heroes in our society, such as war veterans or firefighters.”
“There are so many people that need to be honored, but I can’t do it by myself,” Christine said.