Health

'I saw fleeting moments no one remembers': One ER doctor's photos from the coronavirus frontlines

From fear to compassion to moments of humanity—what the COVID-19 pandemic looks like through the lens of emergency room doctor Dawn Lim

Vulnerability, compassion and gratitude—I think of these words as I take my last unhindered breaths. I’m about to start another eight-hour shift in the emergency department at the University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto. I press down on the nose bridge of my face mask: if it’s too tight, I get a tension headache; too loose and my goggles fog up. I put on the face shield that muffles my voice until I’m forced to shout in order to be heard. The connection I’ve built with my patients—what I love most about being an emergency doctor—is now broken by a two-metre distance. The coronavirus changed the country’s hospitals overnight.

The June 2020 cover of Maclean's with an image from Dawn Lim's series.

The June 2020 cover of Maclean’s with an image from Dawn Lim’s series.

One of my emergency medicine colleagues, who was on the front lines during the SARS outbreak, told me that no one asked her team how they felt afterwards. As of early May, some 2,700 health-care workers have been infected with COVID-19 in Ontario alone. We must give them a chance to tell their stories.

Every day, my colleagues and I care for others, yet we hesitate to ask for help. Throughout this pandemic, I’ve worried about catching the virus and spreading it to my two children. At work, I second-guess whether the person who displayed mild symptoms should have been sent home. I’m terrified about not being able to act quickly enough when I see patients struggling to breathe. Documenting the day-to-day pulse of the UHN, through photos, has provided my only sense of control.

I saw fleeting moments no one remembers: a nurse tucking in another nurse’s hair before entering a resuscitation room, our environmental services staff humming songs while flipping over beds and wiping them clean, the fearful gaze of a patient about to be intubated. Though my colleagues have been wearing masks for six weeks, I’ve learned to recognize them by the creases in their eyes when they smile and by the way they laugh. We haven’t lost that aspect of our humanity.

Registered nurse Katharine Lee (left) and emergency nurse Elaine Lo rush to communicate orders from the intubation team working inside the isolation room (Dawn Lim)


Lee (left) assists as anesthesiologist Martin Ma (centre) uses a video laryngoscope to intubate a patient from a nursing home who has COVID-19; anesthesia assistant Meera Mistry looks on, preparing to confirm the tube’s placement (Dawn Lim)


Registered nurse Siobhan Handley-Derry cares for patients with coronavirus inside Toronto General Hospital’s sixth-floor Eaton Wing

Registered nurse Siobhan Handley-Derry cares for patients with coronavirus inside Toronto General Hospital’s sixth-floor Eaton Wing (Dawn Lim)


Emergency nurses Skye Nicolson and Irene Moran, emergency doctor Julia Wytsma, and emergency nurse Elaine Lo discuss ways to improve future coronavirus resuscitations. (Dawn Lim)

Emergency nurses Skye Nicolson and Irene Moran, emergency doctor Julia Wytsma, and emergency nurse Elaine Lo discuss ways to improve future coronavirus resuscitations (Dawn Lim)


Environmental services staff Mohammed Haque works tirelessly to prepare rooms for patients. (Dawn Lim)

Environmental services staff Mohammed Haque works tirelessly to prepare rooms for patients (Dawn Lim)


A drawer containing PPE sits outside the resuscitation bay inside Toronto Western Hospital’s emergency department. (Dawn Lim)

A drawer containing PPE sits outside the resuscitation bay inside Toronto Western Hospital’s emergency department (Dawn Lim)


The resuscitation room’s door seals tightly to contain any infected aerosols carrying COVID-19 as the emergency team performs a ‘crash intubation.’(Dawn Lim)

The resuscitation room’s door seals tightly to contain any infected aerosols carrying COVID-19 as the emergency team performs a ‘crash intubation’ (Dawn Lim)


From inside the resuscitation room, emergency nurse Michael De Wit communicates the team leader’s requests to the ‘runner doctor’ who supports the team from the outside by gathering further details from paramedics or the patient’s medical records. (Dawn Lim)

From inside the resuscitation room, emergency nurse Michael De Wit communicates the team leader’s requests to the ‘runner doctor’ who supports the team from the outside by gathering further details from paramedics or the patient’s medical records (Dawn Lim)


(From left to right) emergency doctors Layli Sanaee and Derrick Chang, respiratory therapist Mooska Mayel, and emergency nurses Dalena Dang and Ashley Mitchell pause for a moment of respect after a patient dies despite a prolonged resuscitation. (Dawn Lim)

(From left to right) emergency doctors Layli Sanaee and Derrick Chang, respiratory therapist Mooska Mayel, and emergency nurses Dalena Dang and Ashley Mitchell pause for a moment of respect after a patient dies despite a prolonged resuscitation (Dawn Lim)