This candid photo conveyed the pandemic's full weight of human suffering

Dr. Simon Demers-Marcil explains why he was initially reluctant to have the viral photo go public—and how it feels to tell families they're losing a loved one

He’s wearing a mask, of course. His raised left arm obscures the rest of his face, his palm cupped around his forehead, while his right hand holds a landline telephone to his ear. He kneels, his Nike runners splayed on the floor behind him and his entire body slightly curved in on itself.

Respirologist Dr. Simon-Marcil is a big bear of a guy, and when he speaks, it is slow and deliberate and gentle. He may be exactly who you would want to help if someone you loved was hanging by a thread. But in the phone call Demers-Marcil was making in that photo, it was too late for anyone to help. His body language—simultaneously wrung-out exhausted and taut with tension—betrays the toll too many medical professionals have borne over the last year, as they have called family after family to say that someone has succumbed to COVID-19 or is on the brink. After Alberta Health Services released the photo and described its circumstances in November, it rocketed around the internet as the pandemic’s Alan Kurdi moment: a single image of one person crystallizing a full narrative of human suffering, as the photos of two-year-old Alan’s lifeless body on a beach did with the Syrian refugee crisis.

Dr. Simon Demers-Marcil. This portrait was taken in accordance with public health recommendations, taking all necessary steps to protect participants from COVID-19. (Photograph by Candice Ward)

Dr. Simon Demers-Marcil. This portrait was taken in accordance with public health recommendations, taking all necessary steps to protect participants from COVID-19. (Photograph by Candice Ward)

Demers-Marcil and his co-workers at Calgary’s Peter Lougheed Centre were being shadowed by a media crew when someone snapped that image. “They asked if they could use that specific photo. At first, I admit I said no,” he says. “Because maybe I felt a bit vulnerable, being exposed like that on a picture.” But when the COVID case count rose, he told them to go ahead, because they thought the image might help people to understand what was at stake.

When he has to call a family to say that someone has died or the end is near, Demers-Marcil tries to make sure he conveys the necessary information without overwhelming someone in the midst of emotional shock. “I try to imagine what I would like to hear in a similar circumstance, although we’re all different,” he says. “I try to remember that although I’m emotionally involved too, I’m not the one who’s dealing with the loss of a loved one and I try to focus my energy on the person receiving the information.”

There are moments where he feels a tug of deeper connection to the person he’s speaking to, either because they or the patient remind him of someone he loves, or because he can hear in them a kindred spirit, and those calls are particularly difficult. He’s certain that every medical professional who has had that conversation has wept at one time or another. “It’s impossible to take out completely that emotional side you’re feeling,” he says. “And sometimes you’re also disappointed you weren’t able to provide a cure.”

At this moment, Demers-Marcil is cautiously optimistic; hospital and ICU numbers are falling as needles go into arms (he got his second vaccination in mid-February), and he senses that he and his colleagues are better protected for the fight they are in. “It feels like we’re not going to war empty,” he says. But the war isn’t over yet.

This profile appeared in the April 2021 issue of Maclean’s, where we gave our magazine over to a 22,000-word special report, “Year One: The untold story of the pandemic in Canada.” Read that whole story, and learn why we did it.