In an intensive care unit, a photographer’s point of view on a desperate fight against the Covid

ByDavid M. Conte

Jul 21, 2021

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

I captured footage for a recent Times article on a last-resort Covid treatment called ECMO, documenting coronavirus patients and the healthcare professionals who treat them at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Families allowed me to share the darkest moments of their lives.

I felt privileged to be admitted to these sacred spaces. As a journalist, I think it’s my responsibility to have the emotional bandwidth to be with people at times that most of society can’t handle. Despite the safety guidelines that advised against spending long periods inside intensive care rooms, I spent hours with each patient, lingering for a long time so that I could get a feel for the person and generate an emotional spectrum of moments.

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

I stood next to the bed of Alfred Sablan, 25, and imagined the sound of his voice, trying to feel the sweetness described by his mother. I leaned over the bed of Dr David Gutierrez, 62, a doctor who had become a patient himself, and reminded him of who I was. He looked back, unable to respond with words, but I felt our connection to classic rock being played on his iPad.

Periodically, a staff member would come in to check on Mr. Sablan or Dr. Gutierrez’s condition. “It’s okay?” a nurse asked, pushing open the door to Doctor Gutierrez’s room. He nodded “yes”.

In the midst of all the pain, there were reminders of grace.