Toronto nurse col­lects thou­sands of pieces of hos­pi­tal plas­tic, and turns them into art,


Usu­ally, the bits of plas­tic are tossed in the trash.

But Tilda Shalof col­lects the medicine caps and tube con­nec­tors, vial lids and syringe cov­er­ings left over from treat­ing some of the sick­est hos­pi­tal pa­tients.

To her, the plas­tic pieces are not garbage. Shalof, a nurse with nearly three decades of ex­pe­ri­ence, sees a beauty in the refuse — beyond the vi­brant colours and pretty shapes — that re­mind her of lives lost and saved.

“I can use 100 of these in a day,” says Shalof, point­ing to a clear bag hold­ing an as­sort­ment of lids, tabs and con­nec­tors. “Each one tells a story for me.”

Shalof, 58, col­lected the plas­tic bits dur­ing her 28 years as a nurse in the in­ten­sive care unit at Toronto Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal, where she cared for crit­i­cally ill pa­tients, in­clud­ing those suf­fer­ing from heart fail­ure or re­cov­er­ing from or­gan trans­plant surgery. She em­pha­sizes her col­lec­tion is only made up of clean — even ster­ile — pieces that never touched pa­tients.

She has since turned that col­lec­tion into a mu­ral, cre­at­ing a colour­ful mo­saic of more than10,000 pieces em­bed­ded in clear resin.

The mu­ral, which mea­sures 1.2 me­tres (4 feet) high and 2.7 me­tres (9 feet) long, now hangs at Toronto Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal, a part of Univer­sity Health Net­work. Shalof hopes it pro­vides both com­fort and in­spi­ra­tion to hos­pi­tal staff and pa­tients.

“For fam­i­lies, it can be a cheer­ful, joy­ful thing to look at,” she says. “For nurses, I think it shows that all the lit­tle things that we do ev­ery day add up to big things for each per­son we treat.

“Any one of those pieces — the lids, the con­nec­tors — by them­selves is mean­ing­less. But all to­gether you can cre­ate some­thing with a lot of mean­ing for a pa­tient.”

Shalof had no plan when she pock­eted her first piece of med­i­cal plas­tic in 1987 dur­ing her ini­tial year as a nurse in Toronto Gen­eral’s ICU.

At first, Shalof took the plas­tic pieces home for her two young boys; the bright colours and un­usual shapes made them ideal for sort­ing and match­ing games.

As her chil­dren got older, Shalof’s fam­ily used the castoff plas­tic to make elab­o­rate strands of rainbow jew­elry. Soon, the crafts and games were not de­plet­ing her sup­ply. Still, Shalof col­lected the plas­tic bits. And, after more than a quar­ter cen­tury, she had big bags of the med­i­cal waste stashed in her home.

“I couldn’t let them go,” Shalof re­calls. “Each was like a tal­is­man of all those peo­ple I had cared for.

A friend and artist, Vanessa Her­manLan­dau, sug­gested us­ing the plas­tic pieces to cre­ate a large mu­ral. And so, over the sum­mer of 2015, work­ing to­gether on week­ends, Shalof and Her­man-Landau, as­sem­bled the mu­ral, be­gin­ning with a large sun­set or­ange cir­cle con­structed of lids from a drug used to help pa­tients with liver fail­ure.

That sum­mer, Shalof also de­cided to leave her nurs­ing job in Toronto Gen­eral’s ICU. The long hours, es­pe­cially night shift, were be­com­ing too much after 28 years.

But Shalof didn’t want to leave nurs­ing en­tirely, so she moved to Toronto Western Hos­pi­tal (also part of Univer­sity Health Net­work) to work in the de­part­ment of in­ter­ven­tional ra­di­ol­ogy. She still gets to care for pa­tients, but the pace is slower, the de­mands lighter.

And while it was the right de­ci­sion, Shalof also misses the ICU, es­pe­cially the tight-knit team of nurses. In some ways, she says, cre­at­ing the mu­ral was her way of say­ing good­bye to the ICU.

“It’s a trib­ute to nurs­ing. It rep­re­sents all the pa­tients that I took care of over the years.”

Shalof is not yet bored of col­lect­ing plas­tic.

On a re­cent day at Toronto Western, Shalof shows off a bag of plas­tic bits. She ad­mires two lids from cul­ture bot­tles, call­ing one seafoam green, the other cir­cus or­ange.

Shalof hopes to work on an­other mu­ral — she would again like to part­ner with an artist — in­spired by pa­tients and staff at Toronto Western, which is known for ex­per­tise in neu­ro­science.

For most of her ca­reer, Shalof used writ­ing as a way to ease the ac­cu­mu­lated stress of car­ing for se­ri­ously ill pa­tients. She has writ­ten six books, in­clud­ing A Nurse’s Story: Life, death and in-be­tween in an in­ten­sive care unit.

And while she will al­ways write, Shalof says care­fully plac­ing medicine caps and tube con­nec­tors, vial lids and syringe cov­er­ings in a vividly coloured mu­ral is an­other way to tell her story.

“When you are cre­at­ing, you feel em­pow­ered . . . It takes you out of the sad­ness of your work. In­stead, it re­minds you of the in­cred­i­ble work that we do.” Toronto Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal is host­ing its sec­ond an­nual art show for staff on Wed­nes­day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in The DeGasperis Con­ser­va­tory, on the hos­pi­tal’s fourth floor. More than 30 staff, in­clud­ing physi­cians, nurses, phys­io­ther­a­pists and ad­min­is­tra­tors, will show­case their pho­tog­ra­phy, sculp­ture, paint­ings and other art. Pa­tients, fam­ily and vis­i­tors are wel­come to at­tend.


Nurse Tilda Shalof col­lected medicine caps and lids, IV tubes and syringe cov­ers. With the help of artist Vanessa Her­man, she turned them into a mas­sive mu­ral, us­ing 10,000 pieces.

Tilda Shalof’s col­lec­tion of in­ter­est­ing shapes and colours rep­re­sents the thou­sands of pa­tients that she and her col­leagues have treated at the ICU in Toronto.

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