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Early this year, when I photographed people in Covid-19 intensive care units, I was protected by four sets of plastic: goggles, goggles, a face shield and a viewfinder. But there is no protection for the pain you incur.
I captured photos for a recent Times article on a last resort Covid treatment called ECMO, which documents coronavirus patients and the medical professionals who care for them at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. The families let me share in the darkest moments of their lives.
I felt privileged to be allowed into these sacred spaces. As a journalist, I feel it’s my responsibility to have the emotional bandwidth to be with people at times most of society can’t handle. Despite safety guidelines against spending long periods in ICU rooms, I spent hours with each patient, lingering for a long time to get a sense of the person and bring out an emotional spectrum of moments.
Verbal interaction helps me connect with those I photograph. On this assignment, some people were not awake or unable to talk, and the strongest connection was often silent.
I would stand by the bed of Alfred Sablan, 25, and imagine the sound of his voice, trying to feel the soft way his mother described. I leaned over the bed of Dr. David Gutierrez, 62, a doctor turned patient himself, reminding him who I was. He would look back, unable to respond with words, but I felt our connection over the classic rock playing on his iPad.
Occasionally a member of staff would come in to tell Mr. Sablan or Dr. Gutierrez to check. “Are you OK?” a nurse asked as she locked the door to Dr. Gutierrez’s room. He nodded ‘yes’.
In the midst of all the pain there were memories of grace.