“I never thought I’d be on the front line of a pandemic. After working as a floor nurse, then in an emergency room, and then in nursing homes for the last 10 years, I thought I was prepared for almost anything, but no one can really prepare for a global pandemic. The first thing I remember happening back in March of 2020 were the rumors of COVID-19 cases at other nursing homes. Then the first cases appeared at my facilities. Every new potential for exposure came with a new wave of anxiety and dread. I remember during the first week or so that Philadelphians were sheltering in place, I would ask the nursing staff at my facilities who the positives cases were, since there were precautions we knew we needed to take to meet with these patients. Anytime a patient has a communicable disease, you have to wear the right gear (PPE) going into each setting to protect yourself and not spread it to other patients. Within two weeks, the virus had swept through my facilities, and I was asking who the negative cases were because most patients in my buildings had contracted it. By late March and into early April, I would say at least 90% of my patients had tested positive for COVID-19 and 20% to 30% of them died. I remember a nurse telling me, ‘I tested 27 people today - 26 were positive.’Four months after that initial wave of cases and deaths in Philadelphia, patients are still quarantined in their rooms, having had no contact with family or visitors since the beginning of the shut-down. Many patients ask to be moved to the ground floor in their facilities so that they can see and talk with their families through a window. Most facilities were chronically short staffed before the virus hit and there was an exodus of personnel as anxiety and patient deaths took their toll. The reports of people of color being disproportionately exposed were not surprising given that the caregivers with the most direct contact with patients in these facilities, Certified Nursing Assistants and Medical Technicians, are frequently women of color.
Even now that the first wave is behind us, there’s a constant vigilance that’s exhausting. Providers like me struggle to maintain a routine, constantly washing hands, bringing in my own water (so as to not use a public water fountain), eating lunch without my fingers touching my mouth, throwing away all the packaging so I’m not carrying anything out, and then going straight home to shower. Everyday I manage the fear that I’m going to pass the virus to my wife, my daughters, my in-laws. My facilities have systems in place now: routine testing for patients and staff, units for positive patients, a quarantine unit for anyone discharged from a hospital. Every facility now also has a negative population and a recovered population. I have a lot of admiration for the staff who stayed, trying their best to care for their patients in a healthcare system that even they would say was broken long before the pandemic arrived. We all seem to be waiting for a second wave, though I’m not sure it could be as bad as the first.
I always start my mental health interviews with patients by asking, “So how did you get to be here?” I try to give people an opportunity tell their stories, to put into perspective what they have experienced prior to coming to one of my facilities or while being hospitalized. I find that creating this narrative helps my patients to process their emotions. It helps to put terrible experiences and illness into context and it can help someone to transcend their experience.
Creating art gives me the opportunity to do the same. Through art, I can express anxiety, fear, and grief, and most importantly help to promote change. Two of my ongoing projects have helped me to process the current crisis: Pandemic Blues and On Healthcare and Abandonment. I wanted to use this opportunity to tell my story: to photograph and write about what I’ve experienced. We have all been through a collective trauma, and we will need to grieve the many losses we have all suffered. Nevertheless, there is a camaraderie in coming together to process what we have experienced, and my hope is that creating art can help us all begin to heal as a community.”
Las Almohadas Negras
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