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September 28, 2021 | Alumni

Alumni support for the PPE Portraits initiative brings smiles to patients in need

By Janet Rowe

Damoon Ghahari, James Sanayei, Caroline Gregory and Rayoun Ramendra wear masks and laminated photos of themselves smiling.

Thanks to the PPE Portraits project, we see the smile behind the mask. From left to right: University of Toronto Temerty Faculty of Medicine students Damoon Ghahari, James Sanayei, Caroline Gregory and Rayoun Ramendra, who run the Toronto branch of PPE Portraits Canada. Photo by Rayoun Ramendra

This story has been updated. The original was published on April 8, 2021.

Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, third-year U of T medical student Caroline Gregory began seeing patients face to face—in a manner of speaking. After all, hospital workers these days are fairly anonymous behind their personal protective equipment (PPE).

So Gregory pinned a large laminated photograph of herself to her scrubs. “Patients see my portrait and get really excited,” she says. “They say, ‘That’s so cool I get to actually see who you are’.” One person told me that it was refreshing to feel like he was being cared for by a real person.”

Gregory made her photo through PPE Portraits Canada—a project she co-runs with medical students across Canada. PPE Portraits has already helped more than 1,300 health-care workers in Toronto to wear a large friendly picture in addition to their personal protective equipment.

Did you know? When you use U of T alumni financial services, you get preferred rates and support PPE Portraits. Learn more

The project brings human connection into a disorienting environment, helping patients cope better with stays in hospital. And those patients are also happier because of alumni like you. When you use financial services from U of T’s affinity program partners, like insurance from Manulife or TD Insurance, or the U of T MBNA credit card, part of the proceeds are used to support student and alumni programs—including PPE Portraits.

“Any visit to the intensive care unit (ICU) is an extremely stressful experience,” explains Rayoun Ramendra, a first-year U of T medical student. Ramendra and Gregory co-founded the Toronto branch of PPE Portraits Canada in August 2020.

The PPE Portraits idea began during the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic, when health-care workers wore extensive PPE to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus. “Patients were already scared of being infected,” says Ramendra, “and this fear was complicated by the fact that they weren’t able to see and connect with any of the people caring for them.”

“Patients were already scared, and this fear was complicated because they weren’t able to connect with any of the people caring for them”

Back then, American photographer Mary Beth Heffernan launched PPE Portraits to help Ebola health-care workers create smiling faces to wear on their gowns. In early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Canada, McGill University graduate student Adamo Donovan adopted the initiative, providing free PPE Portraits for health-care workers at McGill-affiliated hospitals. Both Gregory and Ramendra know Donovan from their undergraduate degrees at McGill.

“Adamo reached out to us last August,” says Ramendra, “and asked if we would be interested in expanding this project to Toronto. With three other U of T medical students, first-year Daamoon Ghahari and second-years James Sanayei and Kenneth Williams, we brought this project to Toronto and have been working on it ever since.” With the success of the project, the Toronto team recruited two more University of Toronto medical students, Michelle Elle and Zoe Thompson, later in the year to help.


Caroline Gregory, wearing mask, holds up her PPE Portrait. On front: a smiling face. On back: a QR code and sponsor logos.
Caroline Gregory shows off her PPE Portrait. A QR code on the back allows interested colleagues to quickly sign up for their own portrait. Photo by Caroline Gregory

The PPE Portraits concept is very simple—a smiling, laminated photograph attached to the worker’s scrubs. “They’ve been shown to be sanitizable and reusable,” says Gregory. “It becomes second nature: you come out of the patient’s room and you clean your hands, your stethoscope and your portrait.”

When colleagues express interest, PPE Portraits wearers direct them to the PPE Portraits Canada website. “On the back we have a QR code that pulls up the photo submission link right away,” says Gregory. “The form takes less than five minutes to fill out. We resize the photos, get them printed and laminated at our partner printing company, attach a clip, deliver them to Toronto hospitals, and then send out an email to let people know their portraits are ready for pick up.”

“We’ve been able to provide over 1,300 health-care providers, at 13 different hospitals in Toronto, with their own PPE Portraits”

Through the U of T Alumni affinity program, the Toronto team received a grant which has covered printing and delivery, as well as the costs of hosting a website to take orders and process donations. “The cost varies depending on the size of the order,” says Ramendra, “but with this affinity support we should be able to provide free portraits to over 2,000 health-care professionals in Toronto.”

“From September 2020 to today,” he adds, “we’ve been able to provide over 1,300 health-care providers, at 13 different hospitals in Toronto, with their own PPE Portraits.”

Ivona Berger, Kristian McCarthy and Caroline Gregory wearing protective equipment and portraits, and giving the thumbs up.
Left to right: Third-year U of T medical students Ivona Berger, Kristian McCarthy, and Caroline Gregory give PPE Portraits a thumbs up. Photo by Caroline Gregory

Patients love the program. “I’ll point out my portrait when I’m first introducing myself,” says Gregory. “It will often spark a conversation, and it helps build a trusting relationship.”

Physicians and nurses are all smiles too. “It also boosts morale for staff members,” says Gregory. “Having even one person tell you that they’re thankful for getting to see your face and feel like they’re being cared for by a real person—it changes your mindset for the rest of the day. It reminds you that this is what you went into this field for, to be there for people during challenging moments. To help people feel better.”

“It reminds you what you went into this field for, to be there for people during challenging moments”

“Life in the hospitals has settled in to a “mask-erade”, and it’s hard to remember what even old colleagues look like,” says Montreal ICU physician Dr. David Hornstein. “We need to wear face coverings to be socially responsible for some time to come, but we need not hide our humanity, and the PPE Portrait project speaks to this crucial imperative.”

“I am happy when my colleagues say ‘What a great idea and how can I get one’,” says Dr. Sandra Dial. “I love when my patients and colleagues smile at my smile.”

“The whole Toronto PPE Portraits team extends our huge thanks to the alumni and affinity partners,” says Gregory. “The beginning of the project was stressful because we had a very small amount of funds and were worried people might order portraits we couldn’t afford to print and deliver. This really generous support eased many of those stressors and made the project more enjoyable to run. We’re very, very grateful.”

“The whole Toronto PPE Portraits team extends our huge thanks to the alumni and affinity partners”

“And it’s really helped us expand and grow the initiative,” says Ramendra. With the generous support of the affinity partners, they have been able to expand the project into more distant sites, where delivery costs get higher.

“When we all have masks and shields and other barriers in the hospital, it makes it easier to see the patients as their illness rather than building a proper connection with them,” says Gregory. “This project foregrounds the importance of compassion, and remembering that behind those illnesses there is a real person. It reinforces that personal connections between health-care workers and patients are at the centre of medicine.”


PPE Portraits Canada couldn't happen without alumni support.

When alumni use financial services from Manulife, MBNA and TD Insurance, these affinity program partners give a portion of the proceeds to PPE Portraits Canada and over 50 other U of T student and alumni initiatives every year. Plus, alumni receive great preferred rates negotiated by U of T.

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