CHICAGO - Born deaf into a silent world, Nancy Rourke turned long ago to painting to convey her innermost feelings. So, when the 63-year-old artist contracted COVID-19, she responded with a series of striking images intended to alert others to the dangers of the disease.
Rourke tested positive on November 13. Her case was more severe than many others because she also has autoimmune disease. She had fatigue, chills, cough, congestion, sore throat, loss of taste and smell, body aches, severe headaches, dizziness, diarrhea, loss of appetite and shortness of breath.
"Your chest gets so tight, and it hurts, and you're wondering why is it so hard to breathe," she said. "It's so labor-intensive and the coughing — I never stopped coughing every single day. Now, finally I have some relief. But I still cough."
Rourke, who spoke to VOA by phone through an interpreter using a telecommunications relay service, said she also suffered confusion, nightmares and weight loss.
Anxious to warn others who seemed not to be taking the pandemic seriously, the Colorado-based artist began producing paintings and drawings based on her experience with the disease and sharing them on social media.
One of the drawings shows a chopped hand — a scene from a scary nightmare that Rourke had while sick. Another drawing shows a figure with a question mark on the nose or mouth, which represents her loss of taste and smell for two weeks.
Rourke, the only deaf person in her family, said she struggled as a child to explain her feelings even to her closest relatives. It was during her high school years that she found an outlet for her emotions in art.
"My identity of being a deaf person — I was frustrated, and I was trying to describe to my parents and to my teacher about my experiences. And they kind of didn't get it. And so, words weren't explaining my frustrations well enough, so I just started drawing," she said.
That early beginning led to a 20-year career as a graphic designer for major corporations, including 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios) and Microsoft.
But in 2009, she decided to make a shift. After receiving a grant from a Philadelphia-based foundation, Rourke found herself able to focus full time on deaf art, which is based on deaf history, culture and the deaf experience.
Even before getting sick, Rourke said, she found the coronavirus pandemic presented challenges for her as a deaf person. For example, some people trying to communicate with her would take off their face masks and expect her to read their lips. When Rourke asked them to keep their masks on and write their messages, they seemed to get irritated.
"Expressions are really important, and I can read microexpressions," she said.
Rourke and many others in the deaf community also found it upsetting that for a long time, the White House did not provide an American Sign Language interpreter for public briefings on COVID-19 — or anything else.
"The White House needs an interpreter," she said. "There's no access to communication, and we can't understand what's going on, especially when it comes to coronavirus when it was such a big deal."
She created an oil painting depicting the frustration felt by the deaf community at the time. The piece shows a group of "screaming hands" in different colors with the White House in the background. The hands symbolize deaf protesters begging for ASL access.
As a result of lobbying efforts from the National Association of the Deaf, a federal judge ruled in September that the White House has to provide interpreters for deaf people during COVID-19 press briefings.
Every year in February, Rourke undertakes a 28-day art challenge, during which she makes art the whole month. This time, she is planning a project with themes related to 2020, including her COVID-19 journey.
The centerpiece will be a wooden construction modeled on a 28-day Advent calendar. It will have 28 doors, with each door opening to illustrate an incident from the past year.
Rourke now believes her illness in November was her second infection. She said she suffered a milder form of the common symptoms after returning home from a business trip to New Jersey in March but did not get tested at the time.