While the COVID-19 vaccine has been called liquid gold by those who anxiously await their shots, the colourful caps from empty vaccine vials have become the golden touches in a Saskatoon nurse's pandemic-inspired artwork.

Shawn Toovey is a 51-year-old registered nurse who treats COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit of St. Paul's Hospital. He and his co-workers collect clean medical plastics that haven't touched patients, including IV tubes and syringe covers, so Toovey can recycle them into artwork.


"This is kind of the star of the show here lately," he said, sitting in his art studio, holding up a purple cap from a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine bottle. He also likes yellow caps from bottles of saline that's mixed into vaccines for injection.

Toovey said each vaccine cap "symbolizes hope" in his artistic pieces, which also feature discarded medical packaging from COVID-19 treatments.

"It has everything that we use at work during the day to keep people safe and alive," he said, pointing to a piece of a dialysis bag and medicines that are used to treat COVID-19 patients. "There is antibiotics, there is sedatives … pieces of the ventilator … a lot of medications we use to keep them calm on the ventilator."

Nurse makes art to relieve stress

Creating art is a critical outlet for Toovey to relieve work-related pressure. He learned the hard way what happens when he doesn't.

About three years ago, the ICU nurse realized he was burned out.

"I was crying on my way to work. I was crying when I'd be out for a run. Something wasn't right," he said. "I crashed and burned from [working in] an adrenaline area for so long, for so many years and trying to do too much."

Toovey took a three-month stress leave and started managing his mental health with medication, physical exercise, and artwork.

His creative process combines two of his interests: he likes to recycle and compost, and he also likes to paint, draw, and sculpt. Eventually, it just made sense for him to merge those interests and repurpose used or scrap materials in his art.

The father of two made a piece of art for his wife using keys from a piano that her grandmother had bought herself in the 1930s with her first paycheque from teaching.

"My wife could not part with her grandma's piano, but we just didn't have the room and no one was playing it," he said. "Those are the keys her grandma touched and we get to keep that."

A lot of plastic medical waste thrown in trash

Before the pandemic began, he and his co-workers had begun collecting discarded medical packaging at the hospital so he could work them into some pieces.

"We throw tons and tons of garbage out every day," he said. "Every day I bring home bags and bags of it."

Canadian hospitals generate huge amounts of non-hazardous waste. Even when health officials want to cut down on trash, they often discover there's resistance to re-using sanitized medical equipment and that some recycling plants won't accept small plastic pieces.

None of Toovey's hospital scraps include PPE or plastics that have come into contact with patients or toxic materials.

"When I say medical waste, I don't want it to sound like it's icky," he said with a chuckle.

When the pandemic started, Toovey knew pressure and anxiety would increase again — and they did — and that his artwork would become even more important to him. His co-workers — whom he calls "battle buddies" — rallied around him to help collect even more plastic waste to feed his creative process.

"I have thousands and thousands of pieces of plastic to work with and so many ideas. Sometimes I stay up at night thinking about ideas," he said.

In November, Toovey rented a small studio in Saskatoon Makerspace, a collaborative workspace, to create his art.

He also sought advice from Ontario nurse Tilda Shalof, who collected small bits of medical waste for decades. In 2015, she teamed up with an artist friend to make a large mural inside Toronto General Hospital with 10,000 discarded medical pieces.

"To me, embedded in them are the many stories, memories, and moments I've had with patients over the years," Shalof wrote in a blog post.

'I felt my heart stop'

When Toovey showed ICU doctor Hassan Masri the piece of his artwork featuring COVID-19 treatments and vaccines in a red heart, the frontline physician was floored.

Masri said he had just finished a week-long shift where he had "delivered an incredible amount of sad news," and that was weighing on him.

"I just felt my heart stop," he said of the moment he saw the piece.

Masri was hit by seeing all the drugs and devices that kept COVID-19 patients alive. And for him, there's a deeper message embedded in the piece. 

"We have a bad situation but we can look at the bright side," he said. "And if we don't have a bright side, we can make one."

The doctor and nurse teamed up to launch an online raffle for the artwork to raise money for the Canadian Mental Health Association. Masri launched a call for donations to the CMHA on Facebook.

Toovey sees each piece of art as a tribute to the perseverance of his co-workers — "our battle, our struggle, our strength as a team" — and a memento of their patients. 

He has received lot of interest in his work from would-be buyers, who are often medical professionals.

He hunches over his desk with a glue bottle and a bag of yellow vial caps, from saline solution, and the more precious purple vaccine caps. He only has about a hundred right now.

"I have a nice lady that has been collecting them for me as she draws [the vaccine] up in the morning to do her daily work," he said.

Vaccine deliveries are ramping up, and he hopes the lids from used-up vials will cap off his artwork instead of landing in the trash.