Photography is my life-long passion. When I’m not engaged in some kind of creative exploration, I am a healthcare worker. Just like so many others, Covid flipped my world upside down. The year of 2019 started off with my life in balance. I set a goal for myself to start traveling and see the world. I had worked extra hard in 2018 and 2019 to save money and stack up as many PTO hours as I could to be able to enjoy two big, solo road trips at the end of 2019. The first trip was a road trip through Arizona and Utah, the second was a road trip through Southern California.
By the end of my second road trip, I knew I needed this more in my life. I had learned that in my career, there was a possibility to be what is called a ‘travel tech’. How this process goes is that you sign up with a medical professional travel company as somewhat of an independent contractor. They offer you the possibility to choose the state you would like to work in for stretches of 3-6 months. Before moving on to your next assignment, whether in the same state or elsewhere, you decide how much time in-between assignments you would like off with no penalty. Some companies even recommended and encouraged taking 1-3 weeks off in-between assignments. This sounded like a dream come true for me: I’d be making more money, traveling to wherever I wanted, and guaranteed at least a full week off to explore these places before moving to my next new assignment.
In January 2020, I had chosen the companies I wanted to work with and started looking for apartments in Oregon that accommodated traveling working medical professionals. My next goal was a difficult one, preparing to tell my family that I would be leaving. I had planned to tell them all together at Easter in April 2020 and be on the road to Oregon May 1 2020.
January 2020 ended with all my goals set. I began making lists of items to bring and started upgrading my photography equipment. February 2020 was the month that Covid started spreading out of control. Every night, I watched the news and slowly watched the world crumble in the grips of Covid.
It hit the US on the west coast first, Washington, the area where I would be starting my new journey. I didn’t want to think that my dream was ending, but it slowly was reaching that point. Early March 2020, Covid had finally made its way across the US.
On March 13, 2020 I was working second shift in the Emergency Department. At that point, Connecticut had a few Covid scares, but it had not yet officially erupted yet. An announcement came through the overhead paging system: a woman’s voice saying “STAT huddle to be held in purple pod in 5 minutes, all who are available to attend, please attend.”
Working in a hospital, it is not uncommon to hear announcements through the overhead paging system in the emergency department, but the announcements tend to be “assistance to room 18”, “full trauma 10 minutes out”, etc. It’s an essential part of the workflow in the emergency department to use the paging system and we are all very accustomed to hearing these pages. To hear a page stating “STAT huddle, please attend”…. THAT is very uncommon and I rushed to the huddle.
It was finally official: the first Connecticut resident with Covid had finally entered our hospital. As the head nurse released more details about the situation to a group of about 50 concerned nurses, doctors, and technologists, my throat began tightening and I actually started to become scared. More details about the patient started coming out of the nurse’s mouth and a feeling came over me that I could not come to terms with at that moment.
Let me pause here and explain my photography over the past 10 years (there’s a reason for this interlude). Prior to my career move into the medical professional world in 2015, I lived a different life. I worked small jobs making just enough money to get by and support my life as an adventure seeking photographer. I constantly sought out new places and things to photograph. I stuck to two main subjects: nature, and abandoned buildings.
I traveled around New England, across the country, and even through Europe, essentially figuring out how to sneak into these buildings that were often surrounded by ‘No Tresspassing’ signs, patrolling security guards, and sometimes even police. I am a very law abiding citizen, but the allure of getting into these buildings to capture subject matter that could only be accessed by those willing to take the risk, it called to me very strongly. I had a good run, only getting caught by security once and having to pay a $500 fine.
I have done it all: scaled the sides of buildings with thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment on my back to get in through second story windows of dilapidated buildings, ran from dogs, hid in ditches for hours waiting for security to leave. On many occasions, I can definitely recall the sense of fear; fear for my safety due to spending hours surrounded by black mold and asbestos (I did take precautions to wear appropriate masks to protect myself); fear of getting caught and being arrested for trespassing (I always remained on high alert to try to protect myself from this obviously). I do not condone illegal activity, but I put myself in these situations because I was fascinated with the photographs that were piling up in my portfolio. Fear was part of the process to some extent, and I was accustomed to handling the fear to keep going.
When I decided to go back to college in 2014 for a career in the medical profession, I knew I had to make some changes in my life. I had a good run only having to pay that one fine in almost ten years, but I knew I had to walk away from my high-risk photography. As a person seeking a career in the medical field, one misdemeanor on your record could mean losing your license to practice. It wasn’t easy to let go of that part of my life, but I replaced that sense of loss by opening up new doors in my life, in my photography, and jumping into other artistic endeavors.
(Back to the story) So on that day, March 13, 2020, standing in that huddle as a healthcare worker among other healthcare workers, hearing the nurse describe how the first Covid patient in our state had entered our hospital; fear, again, made its way back into my life. As the nurse described the patient, my fear heightened and reached a new level that I had not ever experienced in the almost 10 years of sneaking into abandoned buildings. Standing at that huddle, I closed my eyes, and tried to recall all the patients I had tended to over that past week. It was me, and one of my coworkers, that first helped that patient when she came through the Emergency Department. That patient, who was slowly dying up in the ICU with Covid, we had helped her and spent about 20 minutes up close and personal, no masks, because masks were not a ‘thing’ yet.
Technically speaking, if I had been infected from that interaction with this patient, standing at this huddle, I would still be in the incubation period. I left the huddle and I didn’t know what to do or how to react, but I knew I, myself, was at risk, and at risk for infecting others around me. I walked back to my department, opened the door to a room full of of my mask-less coworkers waiting to hear what the special huddle was about, and told them the news: “The first Covid patient has finally been identified in Connecticut, here in our hospital, and I helped her, with no mask on, the day she arrived about 3 days ago; and she is slowly dying up on the ICU.”
No one knew what to do. Should my coworker and I go home? Should we continue working and just put on a mask? The head nurse didn’t know what to do either, protocols hadn’t been put in place yet. Was I a threat? Did my coworkers fear my presence? It was 11 at night, and I had to call my head manager and her manager directly at home.
After about a half hour of back and forth, no one knowing exactly what to do with us and all the staff that potentially crossed paths with this patient, with my coworker and I potentially putting our whole staff at risk, we were given notice to leave the building. By the time we packed our belongings and made it out of our department, walking through the halls of the hospital to leave, we noticed staff around us scrambling for masks. As we walked towards the time clock to punch out, everyone was putting on masks.
Standing at the time clock, I said to my coworker, “Should we punch out? Like, should we actually touch this machine that everyone else is going to touch?” And my coworker reminded me, “We handled that patient three days ago and we have been working, touching things and not using masks. If we are infected, the damage has already been done.”
My coworker and I were advised to quarantine at home for two full weeks. We sat there, confined in our rooms, day by day, just waiting for something bad to happen. We were approaching the end of the incubation period; if we were infected, symptoms would begin presenting at this point. As this wave of fear loomed, it finally hit the local news: the first Covid patient in Connecticut, the one my coworker and I helped, had died. Fear, as I knew it, reached a whole new level.
Thankfully, neither of us contracted Covid from this event. Upon returning to work, new protocols were put into place so that instances like this wouldn’t happen again. Wear this mask in this situation, wear these masks in that situation, do this differently, do that differently.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, situations like this became common. One day, you could be x-raying a patient in the Emergency Department for ‘chest pain’ with just a surgical mask on your face (lowest form of protection); then two days later you’re x-raying that same patient up in the ICU with a bad case of Covid. The problem was that there just was not enough tests in the beginning, and results could take days to come back. Covid then started taking down our staff. It was not uncommon to hear that 4 or more of the staff in our department to be out with Covid at any given time March 2020 through December 2020.
The world around us began to close down and left so many on unemployment. Through social media, I witnessed the full gamut of responses to this new life during a pandemic in quarentine. People were stressed, bored, lonely, scared, emotional, desperate, depressed, all the emotions. With all the unexpected free time, and needing to find happiness and joy in something, people began taking on new hobbies like making sourdough, for some reason, or learning how to play a new instrument, for example. Personally, not much had changed for me in respects to obtaining unexpected free time. I continued to work 40 plus hours a week through the pandemic, and continued to pursue my (mostly solo) life of pursuing creative endeavors like redoing my website, editing photos, reading, etc.
The rumors of stimulus checks became reality. I wasn’t struggling for money at all and decided to invest the money in everything I needed to make cloth masks: sewing machine, fabric, sewing tools, etc. My choice was based on the fact that I didn’t need the money and it was possible that I could catch Covid and die so might as well put the money into doing something I enjoy (sewing), giving myself purpose (to avoid falling into a Covid-inspired emotional downward spiral), and overall just doing something positive to help others and not expecting anything in return (can’t say that I have volunteered much in my lifetime).
I created a webpage that included photos of my masks, fabric options, and an order form. I took orders through my website, sewed mask after mask, and didn’t ask for a dime in return. This was my contribution to the fight against Covid. Furthermore, it was a turning point in my creative life. First, I’ve always created art that goes on walls; art that one experiences with the eyes. Never have I created something that was essential, to be worn on the body. Second, a majority of the artwork I’ve created was easily reproducible: I put in the initial effort of taking the photo and editing it, and the final product is simply a file on a hard drive that I could print out on demand in any quantity. Mask making involved putting time and effort into every single mask. Lastly, detachment, giving away, letting go. I have sold many prints over the years, as well as gifting prints to those close to me. But like I said, this kind of artwork is easily reproducible. My idea of sewing and donating masks meant that every single thing I created would be given away. These were all original works of art that I was proud of, but I had to detach myself from them. In my entire creative life, never have I created work that I was proud of, on a massive scale at that, and just given it away to others. This endeavor might have been the first time I had to let my left brain control my right brain; an icky feeling for an artist indeed!