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Picture: Ben Fuog/ Helen Zahos

Aussie nurse featured in Brisbane Portrait Prize

Helen Zahos is stumped. It’s early on a Monday and we’re both a bit slow to start. Helen has been up late the night before on Zoom meetings with people in Europe and I have no good excuse other than, much like Bob Geldof, Mondays are not my favourite day of the week.

But my question has stopped her in her tracks. I don’t know how I would feel either I tell her. Helen has been immortalised in a portrait by Artist Ben Fuog as part of the Brisbane Portrait Prize and for “a very ordinary nurse”, as Helen describes herself, it’s hard to digest.

“I don't even know how to answer that, because it's almost overwhelming. I know that history is being written right now. Being in nursing now for 20 years, this pandemic is a once in a century event that's unfolded,” she tells me.

The image shows Helen, almost unrecognisable save for her bright green eyes and glasses, in full COVID-19 PPE. The image could be any nurse and is a homage to nurses across the globe in the WHO year of the nurse and midwife. This year, when it has become clear to many around the globe how important this role is to a functioning society.

“I thought what a perfect on-point subject,” Fuog told me. “A frontline worker during a pandemic. Someone willing to give her all against, at the time, the unknown, for others.

“The piece is purposely harsh and hardlined. I was trying to encapsulate the seriousness of the situation we are all facing. The reality of a fully masked nurse actively saving lives in direct contrast to the lunacy of the many conspiracists and doubters of the COVID-19 in denial.”

Helen’s year started off volunteering in Kenya and as the pandemic started to kick off, she returned to Australia and the Gold Coast University Hospital intensive care unit.

Her career has been unconventional thus far, and her “transient” CV has perhaps prepared her for the upheaval the pandemic has wrought on the health system.  

She was born to Greek parents and grew up on the remote Groote Eylandt, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, before moving to Darwin for schooling at age 14.

Helen says that she struggled to get into uni and struggled still when she eventually did. But she went on to complete her nursing and paramedic studies in Darwin, where she was working in the Emergency Department and was involved with the Royal Darwin Hospital Response to the Bali Bombings soon after her graduation.

She is also a serial volunteer. Nursing in Iraq in IDP (Internally Displaced Person) Camps, in Nepal after the earthquake and Philippines after the Typhoon, as well as assisting during the Syrian refugee crisis on the border of Greece. Using her skills in tough situations has become something of an addiction, part adventure, part exercise in humanitarianism.

“I don't know how it started. I think once you start volunteering, it gets in your blood. There's this really good feeling when you give. I don't know how to describe it, but I feel that you actually come away receiving more than what you gave during those trips,” she says.

“I arrived back from Kenya mid-February and COVID was very much in the headlines. People on the plane were wearing masks. But on arrival into the country, no one even checked our temperatures, no one asked us where we'd been or travelled. I thought, 'Oh, this must not even be that bad if we're just entering the country without these questions being asked or without our temperatures being checked. It can't be that serious'. A few weeks later it all unfolded, and borders closed. Literally, it was two weeks later.”

We joke about the macabre irony of a world-stopping pandemic hitting in the year of the nurse and midwife, and I tell Helen that it is perhaps what people needed to see the value of nurses and other healthcare professionals.

Fuog tells me that it was the pandemic and the values that nurses represent which inspired him to paint Helen.

“The painting, to me, reflects the beautifully innate qualities humanity should aspire to; care, self-sacrifice, responsibility, love, oneness,” he says.

“Living in Melbourne, the effects of the pandemic have been front and centre, everyone here has been through so much. The deaths are hard to take. Two lockdowns that now feel like one. Financial struggle. A virus that is unknown. But, there is a great sense of late that we as a community have done something quite amazing for each other. We had a shared goal and despite some rotten apples trying to distract us, together we achieved something extremely impressive."

Eventually, as Helen and I warm up with the conversation and the Monday morning caffeine, she brings me back to the idea of being immortalised and getting some recognition as a nurse.

“I don't know ... When you talk about being immortalised, I just didn't think of it in that way, I suppose. But I think it's important."

“Last year, I was invited to Geneva to speak at a side event at the World Health Assembly. And I remember I was there when they announced that this year was going to be the year of the nurse and the midwife, and I felt so proud at that moment, and I was telling everyone, 'Yeah, I'm a nurse'."

Helen does that nurse thing, ‘it’s my job’ she says often when I veer near to paying a complement to nurses. But Helen is a 2020 Gold Stevie award winner (Frontline Medical Hero of the Year), Tedx talker, World health Assembly speaker and selfless volunteer, so she is certainly worthy of a portrait. As is any nurse. Many, like Helen, are from humble beginnings, but perhaps if nurses were a little less humble, the profession would be the better for it.

“I don't like it at all because I really feel like we're doing our job, where we're doing what we love, we're passionate about it. I don't feel ... That word "hero" is a really hard one for me to hear,” she says.

And how then was it to finally see yourself, hanging there in a gallery I ask?

“I don't know. To be honest, I don't know how I felt when I first walked in. I spotted the painting as soon as I walked into the exhibition, and it was a striking picture. The colours, it was vibrant, it stood out to me, and I thought it was a really beautiful piece. I didn't feel ... I don't know how, actually ... I don't know how.

“So many people interpreted it differently. It's interesting because you do stand there, and everyone takes something different away from it. That's important, the sheer fact that we're talking about [nurses], it's raising awareness.”

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