Intimidating hazmat suits just got friendlier thanks to an artist's touch.

Are you in there?

How can you tell what these people look like?

Image by Carl de Souza/Getty Images.


You really can't, right?

Now imagine being sick, isolated, and afraid, with a figure in a hazmat suit hovering over you.

Zoinks. If you're like me, hazmat suits and other personal protective equipment have always been a little scary and mysterious looking. Yes, they're completely lifesaving and necessary, but unless it's Halloween or a fictional television show (hi, "Breaking Bad"), they usually mean something serious is going very wrong. How wrong? Ebola wrong.

When Ebola hit hard in 2014, hazmat suits came with it. A lot of them.

It didn't take long to see just how quickly an infectious virus could scare the heck out of the world. The numbers were jarring, the paranoia was high, and the images shown in the media elevated fears to a whole different level.

Can't imagine hazmat suits helped those fears much.

Artist and Occidental College professor Mary Beth Heffernan was very taken back while watching coverage of the Ebola crisis. She couldn't help but think of how frightening the health workers must have appeared to the patients they were treating.

"I thought, what would it be like if you were a patient looking at that?" she said.

A health care worker treating an Ebola patient by Issouf Sanogo/Getty Images.

Her artistic brain kicked in, and she came up with an idea to make protective suits a little more personal.

Mary thought, what if photos of the health care workers could be taken and attached to their suits? It'd show who was really underneath all of the gear and serve as a simple (but effective) way to put patients who were already going through a very traumatic time at ease.

She ran with it and launched the PPE Portrait Project.

It's changed how patients see their health care workers.

Living in isolation, torn apart from family and friends, and not seeing a human face for days can make a bad situation even worse. Adding a human element — if even through a sticker — could only help.

I talked to Mary at length about her preparation for this project. She did extensive research on the Ebola crisis, cultural norms in West Africa, and spoke with everyone from doctors to scientists to anthropologists on how to best approach her idea. She began to write letters all day and night to try and reach the right health care facilities and workers. Throughout the lengthy process, one thing was constant: Her idea was a hit.

She eventually made her way to Liberia while on sabbatical with a discreet package of supplies to see her project forward. The two main things: a reliable camera that could print photos and adhesive labels.

She got started.

First, a picture.

Then, printing them out!

And she was able to teach the health care workers how to create the photo labels themselves, so they'd be set when she left.

Stick 'em on, and boom! There's a friendly face where there was once only a scary suit.

The response has been terrific, and as mentioned in the video below (that you should totally watch!), some health care workers wish they would've had the photo labels sooner. They think they could have saved more lives.

The PPE Portrait Project is a simple way to help comfort patients who have to undergo this kind of horrifying, isolated experience while also humanizing the health care superheroes behind the suits. A GREAT idea in my book.

Rock on, Mary!

See more about the PPE Portrait Project here:

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