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Q&A: Calgary doctor’s new book captures photos of health-care workers, patients during pandemic

It’s an experience Dr. Heather Patterson says saved her career.

When she wasn’t working as a physician in the emergency room in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was behind the lens, documenting the happenings in the emergency room.

She took photos of her colleagues and their patients, chronicling life on the front lines.

“This was an incredible project, personally … this is my way of reconnecting to the purpose and the privilege of practicing medicine,” she said in an interview with The Homestretch.

CBC Calgary spoke with her in October as she continued to take photos for the project. She’s now published a book featuring her pictures, and her experiences, called Shadows and Light: A Physician’s Lens on COVID.

She spoke about the book with host of The Homestretch, Chris dela Torre.

Dr. Heather Patterson took photos of staff and patients when she wasn’t working as an emergency room physician. (Photo by Heather Patterson, courtesy of Goose Lane Editions)

The following has been edited for clarity and length.

How did this project come about?

Well, it’s a little different than perhaps you’d expect. The project itself was developed even before the pandemic started affecting Calgary. I was actually in a place where I was feeling quite burnt out, and I was looking for a new way to reconnect with why I’d chosen medicine as a career. And as the project approvals were being … gone through with AHS leadership and all the different steps, the pandemic hit us, and I was offered the opportunity not just to photograph in the emergency department, but to chronicle how we were all facing the pandemic inside the hospital.

What kind of photos were you hoping to take when this all started to happen?

The project unfolded in ways that I wasn’t expecting. My initial hope was to capture what it looked like and felt like to work within the hospital walls. So processing some of the things that I was experiencing as an emergency physician, the uncertainty, the personal vulnerability, wondering how we would care for our patients, how our team and our teamwork would be disrupted. But as I carried through, I had these striking moments where I could see the connection, the compassion, the kindness in both directions, from health-care workers to patients and families and vice versa. And it was those moments of connection and kindness that really changed how I was photographing throughout the entire project. 

Dr. Patterson says she received consent from hospital officials as well as those featured in her photos. (Photo by Heather Patterson, courtesy of Goose Lane Editions)

You certainly see that in the book, some very intimate moments there. Tell us a bit more about some of the specific images that really stand out for you.

I think one of the landmark images for me is the one on the cover of the book. As an emergency physician, I think sometimes we get a little desensitized to what we see and what we do. I was watching a resuscitation and it was extraordinary, as it usually is, the teamwork, the technical aspects. We were preparing to intubate a very sick, unwell patient. And in that moment, just before we were about to place the tube, I looked over and our nurse, a senior nurse … she was holding the patient’s hand, reassuring her that we would take care of her. And it was that moment of recognition, of that combination of compassionate care and medical care … that’s what makes medicine so special. 

And how much experience did you have with photography before this?

So I’m a self-taught photographer. I’ve taken courses through a variety of different places over the years, and I’ve photographed my friends and family for about 20 years. This was my first major project.

WATCH | Dr. Heather Patterson describes what led her to document emergency department experiences:

Calgary emergency room physician releases book documenting the pandemic through photos

Dr. Heather Patterson has published a book, called Shadows and Light: A Physician’s Lens on COVID, capturing the experiences of health-care workers and patients in the midst of the pandemic. She spoke with CBC Calgary News at 6 host Rob Brown about her photos.

You talk about in the intro how part of what inspired this project was you were working with a patient who ended up dying, and you felt nothing, and you had been working, what, eight hours straight without a break, without going to the bathroom, without eating. And then once you had the opportunity to take this project on and take these photos, what did that do for you and your relationship to your work?

This was an incredible project, personally, and hopefully it’ll have an impact on other healthcare providers who may be experiencing some of those same emotions. We have a ton of burnout in our system, and for me, this is my way of reconnecting to the purpose and the privilege of practicing medicine. It’s bringing it from looking at the systems issues that are often so challenging back down to why I chose medicine, and that’s to care for people and connect with individuals that I encounter. 

Is it safe to say then that this project helped you stave off your own burnout?

Oh, absolutely. Saved my career in so many ways. 

Dr. Patterson’s photos are displayed in her first book, Shadows and Light: A Physician’s Lens on COVID. (Photo by Heather Patterson, courtesy of Goose Lane Editions)

I don’t know if you were getting permission from patients or from your colleagues, but how did you negotiate that part of it when you were telling them that you wanted to be in that room with a camera?

So I think the first step of this is that the project had extensive reviews through ethics, privacy, legal and communications. So at a baseline, the project had met all of the criteria to be a safe and respectful project within the hospital. But when it came to speaking with individuals, I spent a lot of time. My job as an emergency physician involves obtaining consent. And so some of that is recognizing when people are able to adequately give consent and then taking the time to make sure that they were informed, felt respected and in a safe place. And I spent a lot of time doing that. So obtaining verbal consent and, multiple times, I would re-consent people to ensure that they were still comfortable sharing their images even after they had originally consented for the project. 

Have you been able to reconnect with some of the subjects in the book?

I have actually. It’s really neat. So none of my own patients were photographed. That was something that had to be entirely separate. So the people in this book who I’ve met as patients and family members, I’m just the photographer to them. And so I had an opportunity to have a different type of connection. I didn’t have that same emotional detachment that we have to have professionally as emergency physicians and health-care providers. So I’ve had the opportunity to see people after they’ve left hospital to maintain contact, to know how they’re doing, to meet them for coffees and that’s been incredibly special for me.

A row of gurneys are shown in a hospital hallway. (Photo by Heather Patterson, courtesy of Goose Lane Editions)

What kinds of things have you been hearing from the people that are in this book?

Well a lot of people read through it with tears and a good amount of joy as well from patients and families. They found it’s been really helpful to see those images and work through some of the things that they’ve experienced personally and as family members and as physicians, nurses, health-care workers in all areas as well as our non-clinical staff. They felt validated, they felt their work is recognized. And I think for some of us, we were able to see how powerful it is to work together as a team. 

You talk about how you have the privilege of helping these patients, but you’re meeting them on what’s likely one of their worst days. I can’t imagine what it’s like for them to look back at the images in this book at a time when they’re so vulnerable.

Absolutely, and that’s the point that’s so important. Number 1, that people understand that they feel like they are in a place where this is an honest and authentic representation of their experience, but that they also have the opportunity, and have had the opportunity, to decide if they want to share those images in the book or whether they were just content being part of the project prior to the book. 

The book marks Dr. Patterson’s first major photography project. (Photo by Heather Patterson, courtesy of Goose Lane Editions)

Now that you’ve taken on something like this, do you see yourself going further down this path of becoming a photographer, or how does that square with your work as a physician?

I think that it parallels and dovetails quite nicely. As a physician, I understand what we are experiencing within the hospital, and the original intention of this project was to be a wellness-based project to show others the incredible work they were doing within the hospital. So I hope to carry on, to continue photographing my colleagues, my friends and people in the non-clinical support staff to again share with them how I see them and that’s the excellence, hard work, sacrifice and dedication that they provide to the people in Calgary.

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