This is the nineteenth blog in a series on COVID-19 and lockdown, edited by firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
For two weeks in May 2020 I documented the response to COVID-19 by Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in three hospitals: Charing Cross, St Mary’s and Hammersmith. From A&E to the laboratories, admin staff to ICU nurses, the first ward to be switched to a COVID-19 cohort and heart surgery, I’ve seen the complex, multidiscipline response to this crisis by the NHS.
What first struck me was the professionalism and calmness and, most importantly, the sense of a team working in unison, a team where every player is crucial. During the crisis many had volunteered to step into roles they were unused to: surgeons acting as support staff in ICU, junior doctors feeding patients and providing palliative care. Egos were set aside, with every member of staff offering to do whatever was needed.
It’s something everybody within the NHS is proud of and a story they wanted told. After one meeting a nurse pulled me aside and said, “Please make sure you document the work of the cleaners. They’ve been amazing.” This after a junior doctor asked me to make sure I focus on the nurses. Everybody is full of praise for their colleagues. Again and again I was told, “I only got through this because of the support of my team.”
This project had particular meaning to me. Following an accident in 2011 – I stepped on an IED while in Afghanistan working as a photographer – I spent a year in hospital, some of that time in wards of these hospitals. Some of the staff I was working with were responsible for saving my life. Indeed, it was they who asked me to come and document the hospitals during this unprecedented time. It was the 46 days I spent in an intensive care unit, much of that time on a ventilator, that left the most traumatic memories and returning was not an easy decision. The nightmares from that time have never left me.
But the medical staff that in contact with me had a simple request; they felt there needed to be a document of what was happening. As some of these staff members had been involved in my own treatment, I felt it was in some small way, a way I could repay them for giving me my life back. When it came to allowing in photographers, there was a lot of political pressure to deny access. For this reason at the beginning of the crisis we were seeing very little of what was happening within the hospitals. While discussions about media access continued, the staff were concerned no record of their work was being made.
So my original brief was to create a document, showing all aspects of Imperial NHS’s COVID-19 response. I agreed that the photos would not be published anywhere until further discussion and agreement; but for now to just create a photographic record of the NHS teams’ work.
For that reason I decided to do the work on film (Ilford HP5), as I have always felt that the best way to create historic documentation due to its archival properties. The work was supported by the Pulitzer centre and will be included in the Museum of London’s official Covid archive.
So what were my feelings about what I witnessed and what did I learn from spending time with the staff? Despite their monumental efforts and the pressure they were under, the majority of the staff I met working on these wards were uncomfortable with the word “hero”. It was, of course, used with best intentions, but they were worried there was a danger we forget that the staff are human. Many pointed out that they were working long, exhausting hours, often understaffed and not valued, long before COVID-19, and, that besides, this is their job. Others worried that when politicians call them heroes, they are suggesting the staff made the choice and expected the sacrifices caused by political mistakes.
Politicians and media constantly use the analogy of this being a war and the NHS staff being on the frontline. I have witnessed war and I can tell you that this is the opposite. War is devoid of humanity. It is inhumane and cold. What I saw in these hospitals is all that is good in humanity. The hospital staff, despite all their challenges and fears, went about their work with calmness, professionalism, compassion and dedication.
It was the details of their work that impacted me the most. The intimacies of shaving and washing COVID-19 positive patients, sitting holding their hands as they die, buying iPads to connect isolated patients with family: these moments went beyond their work. While the last thing I’d ever want to do is contradict the staff I met, and I do agree that just doing your job does not make you a hero, the manner in which you do it can.
Make no mistake, many of the staff were terrified while working during the first days of the crisis; some cried when they heard their wards were being switched to “red zones” (designating them for suspected Covid patients). Yet despite this, they still treated the sick with dignity and compassion. As one nurse told me, despite the risks of working with COVID-19 positive patients, “I did the job exactly the way I always have. I will care for my patients the way I’ve always cared for them.” These staff are the best of us. I feel humbled to have witnessed their work.
As I write these words now, six months after I did my photographic project, I’m reminded of the words Dr El Haddad said to me on the last day I was there photographing at St Mary’s Hospital, they have sadly come true. This is an extract from a GQ article I wrote at the time
As I left on my final day, I asked Dr El Haddad if he thought there would be a second wave. “I’m an optimist, so I’m hoping that this wave has settled. But we are planning to deal with another similar, or even worse, wave. And I think that the whole country’s trying to prepare for that.
“It’s the biggest fear: how am I going to go through this again? Let’s just pray there is no second wave, but if there is, those feelings will surface again. Because you know what’s coming, you know what you have been through and I know I don’t want to go through this again.”
A behind the scenes film is available at https://vimeo.com/447073093
Other blogs in this series: