Editor’s note: Jeff Rhode is a multimedia specialist for Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey. When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, Rhode was given the option to work remotely. He chose to continue to show up in person instead, and has spent the past year documenting doctors, nurses, staff and patients as they navigated the epicenter of the pandemic inside the hospital. This is his reflection, in words and images, on the experience.
I came to the hospital almost 10 years ago. My work was a lot of event photography, physician portraits, patient testimonials and advertising work. Last March, I shifted gears and started to document everything that I was seeing our staff do. The medical center went from a few Covid-19 patients to over 250 in the course of 2 months. The concerns of coming in and working and then going home to the family was scary.
I was one of the few people who was able to document the pandemic from inside the doors of a hospital.There were not many photographers in my position. Photographers from the outside were not allowed in for safety reasons. The hospital’s PR team saw the need to make this public because there was so little of it being published. We made the images available to the news media and on social media. My images started to run in the newspapers and everyone started to see how transparent and honest we were with the public. The response was overwhelming. Everybody accepted me as being a front-line worker alongside them.
My goals were to illustrate the incredible dedication and compassion of healthcare workers, while also raising awareness about the severity of this new virus. Basically, I became a small news department. I would run around the hospital every morning and ask people, ‘What’s going on today? What do you think is important?’ It became my beat. At first, I thought of it as documenting the day-to-day of what was happening in the hospital. Then somebody pointed out to me that I was documenting history. It hadn’t occurred to me because we were all working so much. We were working 17 hours a day. It took its toll on everybody, but I was really proud to be part of the whole thing, and still am.
There were HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) concerns, there always are. You can’t reveal the identity of anybody that’s not an employee at the hospital without their permission. Early on the best route of treatment was to intubate, which means that the patient would be unconscious. That provided a challenge for me, of course, because I couldn’t get permission. I did a lot of shooting around people so that I didn’t show their faces and they were obscured in some way. There were instances where I was able to ask a family member for permission and they were able to consent.
We were 100% Covid for a long time. The number of sick patients and the number of people dying day after day after day was very difficult. We had family members die. We had co-workers die. I think that the impact on the staff was much larger than anyone could have predicted. Two nurses had husbands in the ICU at the same time, and they died less than 24 hours apart. It was so heartbreaking.
One of our co-workers — he was a patient transporter and as a result, everybody knew him. He was here for 30 years, and he died. That was really difficult for everybody. On the day that he died, his director brought a stretcher out and transported his body under a sheet down the hallway to the morgue. People lined up in the hallway and were applauding and reaching out and touching the sheet.
The facilities and construction team at Holy Name took on complex and huge challenges quickly and creatively. They built venting systems, constructed ICUs and came up with innovative solutions under tough circumstances. For example, they came up with the idea to locate all IV pumps and medications in the hallways, where they were connected to patients through holes in the wall, so staff did not have to don full PPE (personal protective equipment) to enter each time a medication needed to be changed.
During the pandemic, family members and visitors were not allowed in the hospital. Sometimes I would go with patients for tests, like an MRI or something like that. I would make phone calls or go pick things up that they needed, whether it be something silly like chapstick or a nail clipper. One patient was unconscious and on high-flow oxygen. The nurses FaceTimed his caregiver to say they didn’t believe he was going to make it through the day — if there’s anything she’d like to say to him, now would be a good time. She talked to him for a couple (of) minutes and there were nurses by his side, holding his hand, touching him, just making him feel better. Even though he wasn’t conscious, he was sort of responding to it. I did take a few shots of this. Then after a few minutes, the nurses got called away to help somebody else. So I stayed and did the same things as they did for a while. Everybody working inside the hospital was doing their best to help people in every way. There was a unifying sense that we’re all in this together.
Throughout the day while photographing you’re just kind of getting through it. You have a sort of tunnel vision. You’re moving very quickly and trying to predict what’s going to happen next and are aware of everything around you, too. You have a lot of different senses going. You may not be processing any emotion during that time. But at night, when I would sit down to edit, the day slowed down and I realized what I had seen. There were times I didn’t even remember things happening until I saw the photos again. It was the only quiet time during the day — usually 13 or 14 hours of working. It was a very emotional time for me. During the day, you were just focused on doing the work and helping people. I mean, we were emotional, but you can’t fall apart.
Having the experiences of working in the Covid wards was very helpful for dealing with when it happened to my mom (Rhode’s mother, Jill Rhode, who was 79 years old and had no underlying conditions, got sick with Covid-19 and died in the ICU at Holy Name in December 2020). She wasn’t alert, but she was uncomfortable. She started to fidget around a little bit and I was touching her shoulder just trying to say, ‘You know, everything’s okay. Don’t worry.’ There was a nurse sitting by her bedside and he said, ‘She likes it when you do this.’ He picked up her hand and started to rub the middle of her hand. And for him to know that –– it was the way everybody here cared for patients. It became very clear to me at that moment because people were so helpless, it didn’t matter what your job was — you were put in that position.
I was photographing in the morgue. And there was a very large pile of these red bags, biohazard bags that the patients’ belongings had to go into. They would hold them for the family members to claim. The person that was working in the morgue was reaching up, looking for one of the patient’s bags and, and a cell phone rang in a bag. And he said, ‘That’s happened three days in a row about this time.’ If somebody doesn’t know you died, they’re still trying to reach out and talk to you. And that was like — it was something that I couldn’t photograph. And it’s a story that, when I tell it, I still feel the hair on my neck stand up because it was such a hard moment.
One day, I took the stairs and stumbled upon Brenda, a respiratory therapist, taking a much-needed break staring at the New York skyline on a phone call. After a polite ‘Hello’ she told me, ‘It’s not a sunny day, but it is a great day,’ with a smile. The first patient since the craziness started two weeks before had been extubated — a milestone! The breathing tube had been removed. Thinking about this image as I edited it was the first time I actually broke down.
When Covid patients were released, no matter who they were, the hospital played the theme song from “Rudy” over the loudspeaker. It was uplifting to know someone’s leaving, someone’s making it out. If you heard it 10 times in a day, it was even better. Fifty to 300 people would line the hallways, applauding for them as they were taken out in a wheelchair. We had to find (the) good moments to hold on to.
I know that looking back on the past year with Covid, I have a different perspective than most people. It’s difficult to look back and remember details of what happened because the experiences inside the hospital were happening so fast that there was very little time to process them. We were all doing what was needed every day for weeks straight without a day off. There was one weekend when over a dozen people died from Covid. Our adrenaline seemed to be endless, and that kept us going. Every new day seemed exactly the same as the day before, and it seemed to go on forever.
I am grateful that we survived and that I am able to give everyone a visual diary of the experiences inside the hospital.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited for clarity by Sarah Stacke.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR
The illustration was created by Emily Walton, who is an art and design student from the UK. She specializes in portraiture and aspires to tell the stories of the people that she draws. Her art explores themes of chronic pain and self-identity and has more recently branched into celebrating the hard work of those working on the front lines to fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Instagram: @emily.rose.arts
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