When the virus hit, my first thought was to create an oral history of doctors and nurses on the front lines to preserve their experiences, revelations, and day-to-day stories as we moved together through this. At some point we will look back at this as an important time, significant for myriad of reasons, and we’ll want to know what it was like at the tip of the spear as well as what it was like in quarantine rationing pasta and watching Netflix. We, as humans, have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for stories about heroes. Hollywood spends a great deal of time and effort recreating destruction, but we don’t seem to have the same propensity to tell stories about people who build and people who hold back chaos. This is a story about heroes.
As I started photographing doctors and nurses in early April of 2020 the city began to shut down in parts as though someone were in the basement of a large building flipping circuit breakers. But some things stayed on. Water kept coming from the faucets, the trash kept getting picked up, food kept appearing on shelves, and the mail kept arriving at the door.
When most everything stops it becomes a lot easier to see what few people are actually keeping us all alive. As I began to meet more essential workers–delivery people, cashiers, plumbers, postal workers–I became more cautious about using the word “heroes” because it can suggest a shifting of responsibility. It’s easy in our minds to offer up the word hero in exchange for the ethical malaise we’d otherwise feel about sending someone else into the uncertain air of the grocery store to pick up our Wheat Chex cereal.
While nurses and doctors signed up for this, a lot of people now on the front lines didn’t get to make that decision and were never asked the questions that we ask doctors and nurses and soldiers and sailors: are you willing to risk your life and the lives of people you love for this job? Some people in the thick of this are economic hostages who are at risk because they cannot skip a rent payment or don’t have health insurance. And as jobs fold and people lose their employer-provided healthcare, their immediate options to pay the bills are a plethora of essential jobs that carry risk and offers no paid sick leave and everything gets worse. Our country is being hit by a medical emergency, to be sure, but that is sitting on top of an existing social emergency that has stratified risk.
So do thank the doctors and nurses you see and clap for them in the evenings. But be sure to tip your delivery person, thank your letter carrier, thank every FedEx driver who walks past your front stoop, and put your mind to thinking about how to make everyone’s lives better and more equitable, because this is a story about both heroes and inequality.
My grandparents came through the crucible of WWII forever altered, and many people through 9/11, never able to find again the world as it was in August, 2001. I imagine we all too will be changed. The life of 2019 won’t be a place we go back to. It will only be a place that was. In years to come people not yet born will find our faded collections of hand-sewn masks in trunks and ask what we did and what it was like during this time. I’d like to be able to tell them. I’d like to be able to say “Here are the stories of the people who kept us alive.”
I photographed most people early in the morning on their way to work and from a distance of at least 10 feet. If you know someone else I should photograph, please contact me.
I am grateful to the people who helped make this possible not only the doctors and nurses, but influential people who believed in this project from the beginning and were eager to help me share the stories of those on the front lines: Mayor Jim Kenney, Linda Huss, Kelly Cofrancisco, Deana Gamble, and the Philadelphia Streets Department.
All photographs by Kyle Cassidy. View his portrait series here: Betweenusandcatastrophe.com
“I personally think our hospital has responded really well to everything. I think it is lucky that we’ve had a little bit of time to prepare because we’re close to New York. The pressure was on for us to get prepared really quickly because we know there’s a wave coming but we did have some lag time there and our hospital leadership and administration has been really on top of things. I’m thankful that at least for now I really feel supported and communicated with and protected, which I don’t think is the case elsewhere. That’s a silver lining because I don’t have the extra burden of fighting for myself and my co-workers because I know that they’re out there looking for equipment for me and getting information to me.”
“We’re always a team at the hospital. You never get everything you’re supposed to get done in a day, so we’re always helping each other. You never have your ‘own patients.’ They’re all your patients. If a nurse is busy and their patient needs medication you just do it. You’re not like ‘I just have my four patients.’
But now we’re literally dressing each other because it’s hard to get all that equipment on and off. We’re all in this nightmare and everyone is really just pulling together. I’m not surprised because we’ve always been that way. But it definitely makes it a lot easier. Everyone is just getting through it together.
The other day a patient of mine was dying and I kind of lost it at the end of my shift and two of the other nurses took me in another room and hugged me and said ‘It’s OK. We’ll wash our hands later.”
“City Council is operating in this weird reality where we’re trying to support our constituents and meet their needs virtually, which is difficult because we know that lots of folks are not able to easily communicate virtually and don’t have regular access to technology. So, we’re in this space where we’re interacting with the folks that we can who are more connected, and we’re also trying to find ways to interact with folks who aren’t as connected.”
“At the beginning, we felt like spectators on the sidelines of what was happening. We were watching and listening to the stories coming from New York and around the world. As the stay-at-home order came into effect, and the general public’s concern about the virus was amplified, our emergency department saw our numbers dwindle, like the tide going out before a tsunami, and we knew it was only a matter of time before the wave came rushing in. With each case that came in you worried about the patient, but also the risk of infection to EMS personnel, the registration staff, the nurse, the tech, the respiratory therapist, and the environmental services team tasked with cleaning and sanitizing each room before and after the patient was there. The constant refrain in the back of my mind was, ‘Am I going to bring this home to my wife and young son?’”
“At work there’s a greater sense of camaraderie that wasn’t there before. We’re all working together towards a common purpose. I think that I’m also personally reaching out to people in ways that I didn’t before just to say ‘Hey. I’m thinking about you.’ And I’m spending more time with my kids. I’m having conversations with my 14 year old who normally hides in his room and doesn’t want to talk. He’s kind of bored now so he comes up and will have conversations with me, which is pretty remarkable. I think that there are a lot of silver linings. You just really have to look for them.”
“The first batch I wasn’t totally confident about donating to the Facebook group Sew Masks Philly. There had been so much conversation in the group in the first week. I was just working with stuff that I had around my house, and I wasn’t quite sure if they were hospital-ready, so I just gave them to people in the community–people in the grocery store who still have to interface with everybody, the postal workers, our delivery people, et cetera. After that I used approved patterns and donated them through the Facebook group. We started with about 60 different patterns and narrowed it to three approved ones and what materials to use. There was a lot of discussion about how useful the masks are? How much does it filter? Can it be washed? And the big thing for hospitals is if they be autoclaved Can it go through the hospital cleaning process? So, the pattern and the fabric, which is 100% cotton, and there are types that have a slot for a filter, which could be polypropylene or even a paper towel that would add an additional layer. There was much discussion about the ties. Do they use an elastic tie around the ear? How does that feel? If someone’s wearing it a long time is that comfortable?
While I’m in quarantine I could be sitting here cleaning my attic, but I’m happy to have a talent that can be utilized and help support health care workers until I get called back to work.”
“I have noticed that folks in the restaurants are feeling a lot more tense. Some of them because of germs and others who feel overwhelmed because they’re getting so many orders, but they can’t have as many staff as they normally would because they’re trying to maintain social distance. So, there’s that tension or the exact opposite, which is, not getting enough orders. How sustainable it is for them to get three orders in a day?
I’m working fewer hours and making what I need to make. And because of the nature of riding a bike around the city I sometimes see friends on the sidewalk and I can say ‘Hi’ from a distance. For me, that’s a meaningful connection with a person. My partner is having a harder time with the idea of staying inside all the time. She’s used to being much more active, and that’s getting to her.”
“It’s very, very crowded in that store. They have a whole bunch of social distancing signs saying things like ‘Stand here,’ but a lot of people don’t abide by that, and a lot of people just get close to you. And I know they tell you not to wear masks, that they won’t really help you, or it might even put you in more danger. But at the same time, there are so many people around and I don’t know. I’d rather just wear a mask.”
Normally this room would be filled with news media, but the conferences are now all virtual, attended only by eight staffers all sitting a dozen feet apart. City Hall itself is nearly empty. The doors are locked and the metal detectors are turned off.
Deana Gamble, director of communications for the Mayor’s Office, was the reluctant face of the Covid-19 response team for this photo, preferring to direct attention to the other people doing so much work from elected and appointed officials to behind the scenes staff and the PHLGovTV team.
“When I think about the immense sacrifices of our healthcare workers and first responders on the front lines of this crisis, not to mention the countless people suddenly out of work, I feel very blessed to have a career that allows me to play a part in helping our city get through this challenging time. The need to communicate rapidly changing, and complex information to diverse audiences is demanding. But I’m so fortunate to have an incredible team of communications pros who consistently go above and beyond the call of duty.”
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