COVID-19 transformed hospitals. There are no more families or friends at bedsides, just waves of patients—sick, scared and struggling to breathe. With the rest of the world locked out, the relationship between patients and health-care workers has intensified. Critically ill patients with COVID-19 often remain hospitalized for weeks. Doctors, nurses and other staff perform intricate, high-stress medical acts like intubations. They also carry out intimate acts like washing faces and holding up iPads so a wife can ask her husband to wake up.
Heather Patterson is a Calgary emergency physician and photographer. On her days off, she returns to the hospital to ask patients’ permission to take photographs throughout their illness. During the third wave of the pandemic, many people being treated for COVID-19 in the ICU told Patterson they wanted others to see that the virus’s effects are real and enormous; they hope their stories encourage people to be vaccinated. “They want to share what it feels like to be alone in a hospital fearing for your life,” says Patterson.
Patterson started her project after a particularly challenging shift in the emergency department. She set out to capture the day-to-day pressure on physicians, hoping to find motivation in her colleagues’ resolve. It worked. Patterson says that, along with heartbreak, she’s been witness to immense love and resilience. “The moments of kindness and compassion I’ve seen inspire me to keep going,” says Patterson. “Otherwise, the trauma and the tragedy would be overwhelming.”
With COVID-19, health-care teams have a short window of time during which patients can be safely intubated. Physicians and respiratory therapists sweat under their layers of PPE, making their hands slippery and adding to the challenge. “The degree of intensity and focus during an intubation is quite heightened.”