"A smile to a scared patient eases their fear and shows our compassion."

healthcare workers photos on PPE
Credit: Courtesy of Courtney Belot

Seeking medical care right now is pretty nerve-wracking, to say the least: Some people are searching for a diagnosis or treatment of COVID-19, some are seeking help for other emergency medical situations; but in any case, patients are met by doctors, nurses, and other hospital staffers wearing personal protective equipment that completely covers their faces. While that necessary PPE protects both patients and health care workers, it can hinder another important part of medical care: a reassuring look or simple smile that can be calming in these stressful situations.

When Robertino Rodriguez, a respiratory therapist at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego noticed this, he found a way around it: He taped a smiling photo of himself to his PPE, along with his name and job title, to show his patients exactly who was taking care of them. In doing so, Rodriguez unintentionally started an inspiring movement in the health care worker community, with so many others following his lead and sharing their photos on their protective gear—and social media.

“I was at work covered in my PPE and my patients couldn’t see my smile,” Rodriguez tells Health. “A smile to a scared patient eases their fear and shows our compassion. I felt sad for them, so the next day I remembered we have a laminator machine in our break room. So I thought to make a giant laminated badge to show patients my face and smile. That way they know that behind my mask I am smiling at them.”

Rodriguez was overwhelmed by the response to his act—from the people who he was treating, other healthcare workers, the social media world, and even California Governor Gavin Newsom, who tweeted his gratitude to Rodriguez. So far, his post has amassed over 36,000 likes on Instagram, and several other medical professionals have followed his lead, sharing photos of themselves and their smiling faces.

“Patients have responded so positively,” he says. “The part I didn’t expect was the positive reactions by other people around the world. Sometimes we also forget that mental health is also important for healing.” And the laminated badge doesn’t just help those he treats, but himself. "I can see that they are happy for this small gesture and my heart also gets so much joy,” he adds.

Courtney Belot, a radiation therapist at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, was one of the medical professionals inspired by Rodriguez. "I loved it and ran with it," says Belot. She went on to share the idea with the other radiation therapists in her department, asking them to submit their photo, along with a little blurb about what makes them smile or happy. Belot took it upon herself to make the badges for all of her coworkers.

healthcare workers photos on PPE
Credit: Courtesy of Courtney Belot

“We see our patients daily, Monday through Friday, for sometimes up to 8.5 weeks," says Belot, who administers radiation to those diagnosed with cancer. "Oftentimes when patients are done with treatment, we get notes thanking us for our care and compassion during their care. More often than not, these notes mention how comforting it is to see our smiles daily."

Belot adds that, while cancer treatment is scary no matter what, COVID-19 has only exacerbated fears. "Our patients can't bring visitors; they need to come to a hospital daily, which is putting them at risk of getting COVID-19, but is also medically necessary for their cancer treatments, and they don't get to see the faces of those who they're being cared for by." So a simple photo attached to PPE can help provide some extra comfort. "It helps bring a human touch to what can feel very sterile and dehumanizing," says Belot.

“As a department we have noticed patients appreciating the gesture,” adds Belot’s coworker Eliza Pautz. “No patient ever wants to be under treatment, but we were always able to give them a simple smile and form a connection. With COVID-19 policy changes we wanted to show our patients that we still care, are still smiling and are happy to be here delivering their treatments.”

Peggy Ji, MD, an emergency physician in Los Angeles, California, also saw the post on Instagram and wanted to join in because of the patients that she takes care of every day in the emergency department. "I've seen how scared they are when they come to us with symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, or fever and the question on their minds and everyone's mind is ‘Do I have COVID?’ I can only imagine on top of their fear for what will happen to themselves—seeing a team of nurses, respiratory therapists, doctors entering their room in full PPE gear is even more intimidating,” she tells Health.

“Under normal circumstances, I am able to hold a hand or even give them my reassuring smile," she says. "Now that we are covered with PPE, I thought it was a great idea to put the photo in front to help the patients connect a human and a smile to the walking spacesuit and masks in front of them. I hoped this would bring the touch of humanism back to medicine in this time of distancing and quarantine.”

Dr. Ji pointed out that the gesture isn’t just beneficial for patients, but also for her entire medical team. “I think it brought our health care team together because we sometimes don't get to see each other’s faces at work too,” she says. “Before the photo, we had taken to writing our names on the outsides of our gowns in sharpies so that we could even see who we were working with.”

She is also moved by the way the movement is united healthcare workers battling coronavirus on the frontlines. “I must say as much as I felt lucky to be a physician even before this pandemic, it is truly an honor to get to do what I do every day and take care of anyone for any condition that comes into the emergency department," she says. "This is why I picked our field, and I'm seeing the team come together like never before to fight a new disease that none of us have learned about in school. I feel like this moment has also brought a lot of healthcare providers from across the country together. Now on social media we are connecting with other frontline providers and it feels wonderful to spread the smile movement."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.