HAMILTON — McMaster University medical student Nicole Crimi never understood why art and science were so often viewed as worlds apart. For her, the two have always worked as a pair. Crimi, 24, is a visual artist and co-founder of McMaster HeART — a play on "health" and "art" — a group that teaches art workshops focused on wellness.
Recently, she published a children’s book, called Patty and the Pandemic, to teach kids about fighting COVID-19.
Premier Doug Ford gave Crimi and the book a shout-out at a press conference on September 30, calling her an “absolute champion.” TVO.org caught up with her the next day to talk about her book, what she learned while writing it — and what kids need to know about the pandemic.
TVO.org: Tell us a bit about the book and how it came to be.
Nicole Crimi: I have my nephew, who is seven months old. And when I got pulled out of school because of the pandemic, the first thing I thought was, “How are the kids that really depend on social interaction and don't understand the pandemic going to be able to cope with the situation?” When I was younger, during the SARS pandemic, I remember I was very confused. I was very frustrated during it because people were just telling me what to do, and I didn't know why. I wanted to empower kids through education by creating a book.
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I got one of my tutors from medical school on board — Joanne Kearon, who's a public-health specialist. And she read through all the content and made sure that it was in line with the public-health protocols and priorities that they have for children in order to prevent disease transmission. I also had it reviewed by Peter Adamson [a professor of facial plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Toronto], who added great contributions and edits to it.
Speaking to the content of the book, it follows Patty, who's a very strong female figure, through her journey of defeating the bad bug. She describes the reader as one of her pals. So the idea is that she's empowering readers not to be afraid of the bug, or COVID-19, but she's empowering them to feel excited to defeat it and to realize that they have the power within them to stay safe and to do what they can to protect the people they love around them.
TVO.org: While you were writing, was there any information in the book that you had to alter as public-health guidance changed?
Crimi: Yes, that was very difficult and stressful at times for me, because I had already made some pages and illustrated them. For example, I made a page that was talking about how, if you touch an object and then you touch your face, you can get COVID-19, which is still relevant. More recently, they started emphasizing the need for masks and saying, “Yes, it's important not to touch too many things and then touch your face, but that's not the number one priority for us.” So that was one thing that I changed.
Additionally, the book originally was talking more about kids staying home and why it's important that we isolate from each other. Then I changed the book to talk about how you can still play with your friends, and you can still go outside, but you should stay six feet apart, and it's best to be wearing masks to protect yourself and your friends.
TVO.org: What did you learn about communicating health information to young people, particularly children?
Crimi: I did a lot of research on what young people like to read and children's books and what gets them excited. It was interesting to kind of put myself in their shoes and enter their world of what is fun and what is not. I also was learning a bit about how important it is to sum things up. I would have loved to include so much information about the coronavirus in the book, because I've obviously read a lot on it. But kids really don't need to be bogged down with all the details. My target audience doesn't know what a cell is, so why am I going to sit there and explain what a virus is and how a virus replicates in a cell and then how that leads to infection with a certain viral load, etc.?
TVO.org: What was one of your biggest challenges in putting the book together?
Crimi: I think probably the fact that I've been in medical school throughout the whole process. My medical school goes throughout the summer. So I was balancing studying for exams or tests and preparing for classes. On top of that, doing all the work and creating the illustrations takes a lot of time.
TVO.org: I imagine you've learned a lot now about health communication. We're in the demographic that's leading cases, and there's been a lot of talk this week about how the province and public-health officials can reach people our age. I'm wondering, based on what you now know, what would be your recommendation?
Crimi: I don't have any kind of breakthrough idea myself; otherwise, I would have tried to do it. But people need to be communicating and actually listening. Everyone wants to live their life the way that they want to live it. And I think it's especially difficult for 20-year-olds. This is an exciting time in our lives, and there are so many things that we want to do, and we're being told that we can't do them.
A lot of people have been messaging me, in that age range, who are anti-maskers. And they seem to not really be open to listening to other people's perspectives and experiences. I think that it's important to listen and put yourself in other people's shoes, because, for people that have been affected by coronavirus, it's very scary. One of my closest friends is sick right now and has been for the past three weeks. I try to talk to her on the phone, and she can't even get through a full sentence. I think it's really important that people take some time to reflect and think of the magnitude of what coronavirus is and what it can do to them or the people around them.
TVO.org: This isn't the first time that you've combined art and health and brought these two interests together. What is it about fusing those two subjects that you like?
Crimi: Growing up, people always kind of emphasized how different they were. People that saw my art were always so surprised that I wanted to be a doctor, even sometimes discouraging. People that knew me only as a science student were always so surprised that I was an artist. And I never really understood that, because I've always used art as a way of understanding myself and the world around me, just as I use science to understand the world around me. So, to me, they interplay a lot.
Like I was saying with the book, knowledge is what creates power and awareness and empowerment, which then also allows change. For me, science is the knowledge; art is the emotion. Put both of those things together, and you have something that can have a significant impact in the world.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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