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Work in Progress: ICU Physician Prepares for Career as Art Teacher

Thursday is North Lake College student Dr. Caroline Ferris’s day off.

These days, a “day off” means catching up on college homework, while making sure her 10-year-old twins stay on track with their schoolwork. Like all of us, her routines were suddenly disrupted by COVID-19.

In a typical month, Ferris would have spent about 10 days working at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, where she practices intensive care medicine and is a trauma anesthesiologist. “I would fly up there and work about 120 hours, and then come home and take my classes,” she said. 

That abruptly ended with the current travel restrictions.

Ferris is studying to become an elementary art teacher, which will be her “second act” when she retires from medicine. This semester she’s taking a full-time, 12-hour course load: Painting I, Drawing II, Art History II and Education Framework.

Remote art classes can be challenging, but Ferris said, “It actually helps me. With my children not being in school and having to keep them fed and organized, it’s much easier not to have to be somewhere else.” And because summer classes will be online, Ferris says she’ll be able to take two classes while she’s out of town. “I’m probably going to work full time in Minnesota all summer. I’ll drive up with my whole family,” she said.

Though she misses the interactions with the other students, she says North Lake College professor Brett Dyer has made the art classes simple and collaborative using the platform Padlet. “You can upload your picture, and people can make comments. It’s very helpful.” Her favorite medium is watercolor, but she recently completed her first acrylic painting at North Lake.

Like her classes, Ferris’ medical practice has moved online. While the rest of us hunker down with home projects and Netflix, Ferris is a tele-ICU doctor who fills in at a different hospital each night. “I do tele-ICU for a group out of Virginia that licensed me in 25 states. Every night, I cover anywhere from 20 to 60 ICU patients,” said Ferris. 

Though she’s been in medicine for 25 years, Ferris has had a lifelong love of art. She minored in art in college in the 1980s and even considered it as a career. She was dissuaded by her parents who said she’d never be able to make a living. So, she explained, “I got out of it and became a physician.”

About three years ago, on the night shift at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, she began painting again. “At night, I would be waiting for patients to arrive on helicopter from outside institutions,” she said. 

Before she knew it, what began as a way to relax between caring for patients turned into a series of paintings informed by all those years of sympathy and empathy. “I was drawing and painting watercolors for other people and giving them away, and people would say, ‘You should really do this,’” she said. 

“For 25 years, my job has been to care for the extremely sick and do what I can to get them better — or explain to their families why I can’t,” she said. Teaching art is a chance to share joy. “I want to become an elementary school art teacher and teach children the love of art and that it is something you can do with your life — something worth pursuing.” 

Though her fellow North Lake students may be missing the social aspects of their college experience, she reminded them, “We are there to get through this and get on to something else; sometimes students lose track of that.”

Ferris hopes her younger peers keep the current crisis in perspective.

“You have to make the best of yourself, for yourself and your future. Curiosity and drive fuels all of life,” she said. “In life, people are going to shut the door on you all the time, but don’t ever shut the door on yourself.”

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