Animated film takes viewers behind the COVID-19 frontline

Animation of nurses wearing blue gowns and PPE
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of everyday life in 2020, and the harsh reality of the disease’s mortality rate became clear, nurses absorbed much of the pain on the front line. In his latest animated film, “Frontline Nurses: Dispatches from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Penn State Theatre faculty member William Doan leaned on the classic theatre exercise of story circles to shed light on the trauma experienced by nurses during the height of the pandemic. The harrowing tales told during the five-minute film were gathered in 2020 during collaborative research led by Doan, director of the College of Arts and Architecture’s Arts and Design Research Incubator (ADRI), and Michael Evans, assistant dean for undergraduate nursing education and a teaching professor in the School of Nursing at Penn State. The qualitative, focus-group design, guided by story circle methodology, gathered more than a dozen nurses from across the country to share their experiences and, according to Doan, the results offered a powerful glimpse into a healthcare system facing dire challenges. “With some of it, I struggled to listen,” Doan said. “When you hear a nurse telling a story about having nine or 10 patients die in one shift, and having to hold an iPad for a person to say goodbye to their family, it was overwhelming.” Throughout the story circles, Doan said there were themes developing, such as isolation, fear, frustration and exhaustion, all of which are explored in the paper, “Experiences from the Frontline: Stories of Nurses During COVID-19,” published in 2022 in Intima, a journal of narrative medicine. “What also emerged was a sense of relief,” Doan said. “The nurses shared that the story circle improved their feelings about the work and their mental health. It made them feel part of a community and gave them a chance not to relive it in a way that was traumatizing, but in a way that was unburdening.” With the research behind him, Doan got to work with his filmmaking team, which is credited with production of “Inhale, Exhale, Draw” and “Sticks and Stones,” both released in 2021 as part of his “Anxiety Project” and each the winner of multiple film festival awards. Directed by Cindy White and her brother, Alexander White, the film uses animations created by Doan and Emily Steinberg to place the viewer in the hospital rooms where the nurse’s stories are told by voice actors to protect privacy. As the stories unfold, statistics fill the screen to offer a robust picture of the toll COVID-19 has taken on society as well as the nursing profession. “We wanted the film to offer a clear sense of what these nurses went through,” Doan said. “I hope that what we’ve done is to offer insight into the stress, the challenges and the pain that frontline workers experienced, and that people can appreciate what they had to overcome.” “Frontline Nurses: Dispatches from the COVID-19 Pandemic” is produced by Doan and Cindy White. Doan and Steinberg’s artwork is animated by Alexander White. Tara Caimi joined the Whites as writers of the film, and Cody Goddard offered post-production work. Joining Doan in narrating the film are Cindy White, Anya Rubenson, Malena Ramirez, Anne-Marie Hildebrandt, Emily Steinberg, Darrin Thornton, Kikora Franklin, Jenny Kissel and Sharon Wenzler. The film has been entered in numerous film festivals and, as of Feb. 10, 2023, has been selected to ARFF Paris International Awards, Docs Without Borders Film Festival and the Los Angeles Animation Festival.