In an ICU, a Photographer’s View of a Desperate Covid Fight

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As I photographed people in Covid-19 intensive care units early this year, I was protected by four sets of plastic: glasses, goggles, face shield and viewfinder. But there is no protection for the pain one takes in.

I captured images for a recent Times article about a last-resort Covid treatment called ECMO, documenting coronavirus patients and the medical professionals caring for them at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. The families allowed me to share in the darkest moments of their lives.

I felt privileged to be let into these sacred spaces. As a journalist, I feel it is my responsibility to have the emotional bandwidth to be with people in moments that most of society cannot handle. Despite safety guidelines that advised against spending long periods inside ICU rooms, I spent hours with each patient, lingering for an extended amount of time to be able to get a sense of the person and bring forth an emotional spectrum of moments.

Verbal interaction helps me connect with those I photograph. On this assignment, some people were not awake or couldn’t speak, and the most powerful connection was often silent.

I would stand next to the bed of Alfred Sablan, 25, and imagine the sound of his voice, trying to sense the gentle manner his mother described. I would lean over the bed of Dr. David Gutierrez, 62, a physician who had become a patient himself, and remind him who I was. He would look back, unable to respond with words, but I felt our connection over the classic rock playing on his iPad.

Periodically, a staff member would enter to check on Mr. Sablan or Dr. Gutierrez. “Are you OK?” asked a nurse as she cracked the door of Dr. Gutierrez’s room. He nodded “yes.”

Amid all the pain, there were reminders of grace.