Society

Alone and afraid: Alberta's third wave in photos

A Calgary physician captures COVID-19 in the ICU: trauma, heartbreak and immense love and resilience

The moment of quiet after a patient has been turned onto his back. His nurse has just left the room, after applying balm to his lips and dimming the lights. (Photograph by Heather Patterson)

The moment of quiet after a patient has been turned onto his back. His nurse has just left the room, after applying balm to his lips and dimming the lights. (Photograph by Heather Patterson)

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.

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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.”