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.