Flint, MI — While isolating yourself from the greater world, it can be easy to forget about the front line workers who are putting their all into the health and preservation of the greater community, despite the risk.
One healthcare worker, Jennifer Fernandes, took it upon herself to document the trials and triumphs of these people for those of us stuck at home to see, and to appreciate.
Fernandes, who was an ER nurse at Hurley Medical Center when she started her project, took it upon herself to photographing her colleagues in action as a side project.
Fernandes started the project prior to COVID-19, but started to broadcast her work, with permission from Hurley, following the chaos that swept the ER in the wake of the virus.
“At first, I didn’t know what I was going to do with the pictures. I didn’t know if I would make a calendar and do a fundraiser for the department, or if I would just give them back to the nurses,” said Fernandes.
What started off as a few photos of nurses in the ER, however, snowballed into something bigger.
“I started taking pictures of Flint city officers, police officers that I worked within the ER when they brought in patients, I got to know them.”
“When the pandemic happened, I was like, Oh, I can use these pictures to give them a voice. To let people see, so (they’re) not just a statistic and not just a number, or nurses in the hospital. They have a face, a voice, a story.”
The 31-year-old nurse expressed extreme passion and exuberance for what she has been able to do, as a front-line responder and on-the-scene photographer.
“Last year, I was actually reading the memoir on Lynsey Addario, she’s a photojournalist for New York Times, Nat Geo. I read her memoir and I was so inspired by how she was able to (highlight) different humanitarian crises,” she said, adding how she was impressed at Addario’s ability to give voices “to these people that would otherwise not have one, just through taking pictures and telling their story. I kept thinking about all my coworkers. So much of what we do is behind closed doors. Nobody will ever see what we do or know what we’ve done.”
A personal favorite of her own snapshots, she mentioned, captures Doni Warner, another nurse and highly respected associate, stationed at the bedside of a trauma patient, speaking to him in what can be perceived as a soothing way.
“I think that’s probably actually my all-time favorite picture because it captures his kindness and leadership so you can see it right in his face.”
She spotlighted a quote of his in a recent Facebook post—a response to her prompting, hoping to give her audience a more in-depth understanding:
“There are things to be said about dancing; you must have rhythm and you cannot have two left feet. I am left feet rich and rhythm poor. Neither of those mattered after I saw a team of professionals dancing around a patient during the chaos of a trauma, I knew I had to learn that dance. There is nothing that compares to the things that happen in an ER. It is fast, it is crazy, it is chaos, it is loud; it is also kind, caring and compassionate. I work with some tough people, brutally honest with the vocabulary of a sailor type people, but they all melt at the touch of a child or the voice of an elderly patient. I have never experienced people of this caliber in my life. Young nurses with so much drive and ambition. Older nurses willing to share everything they know about the job and life outside of it. The dance is difficult, but once you learn the steps, it is one of the most beautiful things you will ever see.”
“That quote of his, it really, really means a lot to me because I feel like it reflects the reason why I started this whole project. I wanted them to have a voice and to be heard,” said Fernandes.
“I think that that really, really happened.”
The life of a first responder is never easy, however, the shift from how hospitals ran prior to the pandemic into the precautions they have to take nowadays has presented a whole new array of challenges.
“Before the pandemic, if someone came in in cardiac arrest, we would throw everything we have at them. The room would be filled with nurses filled with ancillary staff,” said Fernandes.
“Now, because the disease is so easily transmissible and it’s so dangerous, like with some of the different procedures we do in an arrest situation, a lot of healthcare workers are exposed for sure. Especially during CPR or during an intubation. So we’ve had to change the way we do that.”
Fernandes is no longer a nurse at Hurley Medical Center, and has been doing different travelling crisis positions. During a short stint in an ICU, she said she witnessed first-hand how tough the pandemic can be on families.
“When you are really critically ill, your family can’t come say bye to you at the bedside,” she said, her tone growing solemn. “Before, you know, before you got intubated, we would bring your wife in the room, we would bring your kids in the room like, ‘Hey, just so you know, this person might not come off the ventilator, just say you love them, hug each other, hold each other, and you can say goodbye.’”
She recalled a patient of hers who wasn’t doing well and had to be intubated, saying that the likelihood of him turning around after being ventilated was low. She had to Facetime his daughter, and that’s how they said goodbye.
“It feels so wrong to not be able to let people’s wives and children hold their dad’s hand one last time. They have to see our faces and like in full PPE, cover it up, trying to let them say goodbye one last time. And that’s been—it’s really hard. And I know that’s not just my experience. That’s so many people’s experiences across the board because hospitals aren’t allowing visitors to come in because they want to protect these people, not let them get for sure infected from the virus. So it’s been different. It’s been really different.”
The anxiety of having to deal with this on a daily basis can be crushing, but Fernandes said that between this project, and support systems within the healthcare community, she copes well.
“We would say, a lot of my coworkers and myself, when you work in the ER together, you go through so many things together in the trenches just over and over and over again. And at the end of the day, all you have are your coworkers,” she said.
“I think the way that I cope with it the most is giving a voice to these other nurses with the pictures I’ve taken of them, or the cops or of the paramedic deputies. I feel like that’s one way I cope with it because it kind of unites all of us.”
You can see Fernandes’s full gallery here.