A Story of Nurses

An immersive, audio-driven, essay film that bears witness to the experiences of nurses providing care to Covid19 patients at the beginning of the pandemic 

“I don’t know who I am anymore.” The comment gave me chills. Spoken by a healthcare provider who had faced agonizing, life-and-death decisions about patient care in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was hearing the comment quoted in a talk by Cynda Rushton (PhD, MSN, RN, FAAN). A colleague of Dr. Rushton’s had made the remark when confiding feelings of mental and spiritual distress to her. Rushton is Professor of Clinical Ethics in the Berman Institute of Bioethics and the School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University. Her book, Moral Resilience: Transforming Moral Suffering in Healthcare, delves into the moral dilemmas many healthcare professionals face as part of their jobs and the burnout that often results.

The talk was part of a year-long program I participated in at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during 2021. We met twice a month online to hear speakers and consider ways that Buddhist teachings could anchor and fuel actions to help alleviate suffering in the world. Each of us was tasked with designing our own service project as part of the program. When I heard Dr. Rushton recount her colleague’s anguish, I felt a call to bear witness to the suffering I heard in this statement about loss of identity and knew I had found my project.

Of all healthcare professionals, I chose nurses because they struck me as the frontline of the frontline. In April of last year, I posted an invitation on my website to nurses who had provided direct care to Covid patients. The pandemic had been underway a little over a year, but vaccinations had begun and held promise for relief. I realized I was making a difficult request to ask nurses to revisit memories of what they experienced as they provided care, but I hoped that what felt like a small lull in the pandemic’s progression would offer space for such conversations. My goal was to record audio of a variety of voices offering first-hand perspectives and to create from them a story that reflected the collective experience—a story that would be art as much as documentary, that would connect viewers with feelings rather than facts and statistics, and that would capture what ER, ICU, and Covid unit nurses saw and felt as they cared for patients.

Author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “To listen to a witness is to become one.” I wanted those of us, like myself, who had been safely on the sidelines during the pandemic, to become witnesses—to feel the weight and depth of the experiences endured by nurses in a way that words alone cannot adequately convey. And by reflecting the real and raw narratives nurses shared with me, I hoped the project would offer them a sense of feeling seen, heard, and valued.

From May through September last year, I amassed ten hours of audio through one-on-one conversations by phone or Zoom. Typically, in editing a project, the “sound bites” that move me will leap out as I re-listen to an interview. I know how to distill an hour’s worth of raw material into five minutes that capture the essence of what was said. But this story was different. Many of the nurses spoke in present tense as they remembered moments and narrated them to me. They spoke with an urgency, vulnerability, and authenticity that made me feel I was right there with them. Countless times as I listened and re-listened, I had to stop to take off my headphones and weep. “If I am feeling all of this emotional intensity second-hand,” I kept thinking to myself, “how on earth did it feel to be in these nurses’ shoes?”

Every minute of every interview felt essential. I realized quickly that the nurses’ voices and words carried so much power that my job was to help the viewer listen as deeply as possible. I created the film’s imagery to draw the audience into the emotion of the story rather than to illustrate each moment literally.

“I don’t know if anyone else has talked about all the death,” one nurse said. “It’s not just that they died, it’s how they died.” Unwittingly, she had summarized the common thread of all my interviews. “I’m tired of witnessing so many crappy deaths,” another said. Nurses described the pain of seeing people die without their loved ones present; of struggling to show compassion and care, while covered head to toe in PPE; of yelling through two masks and a face shield to be heard over the sound of a ventilator; of witnessing patients kept alive on machines as their bodies became unrecognizable from their former selves. “We’re moving into a place for which there are no words,” one concluded. “And that was essentially every day.”

Not every nurse who contacted me about the project chose to participate. I traded correspondence with twice as many people as I interviewed. One nurse sent a message back saying, “I may have too much anger, at the moment. Plenty of stories but may be blocked right now.” Even these short exchanges helped inform the film. Of those with whom I spoke, most echoed at least some level of anger, in addition to the fear and grief that may be the more expected storylines of their experiences. Most also admitted that they had barely begun to process all that they had been through. They all affirmed that the relationships they had with their fellow nurses were vital to their ability to bear the circumstances.

By the time of my last interview in September, the landscape of the pandemic had shifted again. The Delta variant was causing a new surge. When I was finishing production of the film in late December, Omicron was usurping Delta. As we have learned more about how to protect ourselves from the virus over these past two years and as the medical community has learned more about how to treat it, the stories from the beginning of the pandemic began to stand out to me as unique because of how little we knew in the face of such a deadly, fast-moving threat. As one nurse said, “We didn’t know what we were dealing with, but we knew we were the ones who had to deal with it.”

Even as the pandemic continues to stress the healthcare system, it is clear that many of us have become accustomed to the successive surges, new variants, and the existence of vaccines that bolster people’s ability to survive the illness. I wondered if we may have already lost touch with the precarious uncertainty that pervaded the pandemic’s beginning. This thought brought me back to my mission to bear witness through this film and reminded me of what one of the first nurses who responded to my invitation wrote to me: “I want to offer my story for this project to be of service to the memory of what we, as nurses, have experienced. This time should not be forgotten.” Through our bearing witness to the stories of the nurses in this film, may we become witnesses ourselves in service to the memory of this time, that it not be forgotten.

An Invitation to Nurses

A collective storytelling project gathering the experiences of nurses on the frontline of care during the Covid19 pandemic.

Pieces of the Story by Lucy Mathews Heegaard



If you are a nurse who has provided care during the Covid19 pandemic, this post is for you. Thank you for considering sharing your story with me. If you think your story is not worthy enough, that someone else has a better perspective to offer, I can assure you that your story matters. Every story is part of the puzzle. I hope to attract a demographically and geographically diverse group of participants who have served in a variety of frontline capacities, from ER to ICU to floor nurses to hospice, to any other front-line patient care roles. I welcome all perspectives.

My purpose is to bear witness to nurses’ experiences through a project that is part documentary, part art. In one-on-one conversations, I will receive whatever you wish to share with me about what you have seen, heard, and felt as you have served patients and their families during the pandemic. Once interviews are complete, I will weave your individual stories, in your own voices and words, into one, collective narrative. The result will be a short film that I hope will open the hearts and minds of viewers to your experiences.

Reading news accounts throughout the pandemic about the harsh realities faced by those of you on the frontline of patient care and hearing stories from friends who are hospital chaplains about your bedside vigils with patients, I have been moved by the challenges endured by nurses on all our behalf and struck by how sheltered I have felt as I have been safely sequestered at home. By pairing your voices and words with images, sounds, and music, I would like to create a record of your experiences that honors the physical, emotional, and spiritual toll of your work and helps those who have not had your first-hand experiences to feel the weight and depth of them more fully than the written word alone can accomplish. I hope the film will underscore the vital role you, as nurses, play in general in the healthcare system, as well as the added weight that has fallen on your shoulders during the pandemic.

To listen to a witness is to become one.


⏤Elie Wiesel

My promise to those of you who participate is that I will listen deeply and will treat your story and your time with the utmost respect. Author and physician Rachel Naomi Remen has written that listening with attention⏤and I would add intention, as well⏤offers an opportunity for wholeness and healing. I believe that opportunity extends both ways in a converstion, to the listener and the teller. Through the film I hope to give viewers a sense of becoming your listeners and witnesses themselves.

I will strive to reflect what you share with me accurately and will offer all participants an opportunity to review the film before publication to make sure my use of your words feels true to you. I know that entrusting your story to me is a leap of faith on your part and I do not take that lightly.

Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing…When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness.


⏤Rachel Naomi Remen

I am undertaking this service project as part of my participation in a year-long program on Socially Engaged Buddhism through Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I will be working on the film production aspect of it as part of a Master of Fine Arts degree I am pursuing at California Institute of Integral Studies.


I have concluded the interview phase of my project and am currently in the process of distilling the narratives from these conversations for my film soundtrack. I am extraordinarily grateful to the nurses who shared their experiences with me and hope to have a draft of the film ready in December 2021, for those of you who participated to review. I anticipate releasing the final film in February 2022.

updated 11.22.21

PHOTOGRAPH | Pieces of the Puzzle ©2018 Lucy Mathews Heegaard.

Love Wins

I was once a cat hater. Brought up on dogs, my world view was shaped by slobbery kisses, exuberant wagging tails, and good-natured, “always ready for adventure” personalities.

I had all sorts of preconceived notions about cats and their world: sandpaper tongues, elusive behavior, “I’ll decide when I want you” attitude, claws, and so on. I lumped them all into a single category and held firm to my opinions, despite the fact that I had never spent much time with any of their breeds.My mother was a cat lover. She had them as pets growing up and tried to convince our family to get one on several occasions, but we would hear nothing of it. We were beagle people. And then later rescue-dog people. Cats were out of the question.

Knowing this, imagine me at forty-three with my two daughters at the local animal rescue shelter. It was a hot summer day and they had suggested we have lunch out together and then go pet dogs at the shelter to give and receive some love from them. I said yes. They said nothing about cats.

After petting the pups, they said, “let’s just stop by the cat room on the way out, shall we?” It seemed harmless enough.

I should report one important incident before we continue. A year or two prior to this shelter visit, when picking up our border collies from the kennel after a vacation (my little family had become border collie people by this time), a cat that was staying at the kennel long-term hopped onto the desk as I was paying our bill. She was allowed roaming privileges because she was staying at the kennel so long and had become part of the family there.

As I was writing out my check, she perched on the desk next to my checkbook and inspected me. I ignored her. The next thing I knew she stood up on her hind legs, leaning over to me, and gently placed her paws on either side of my neck. She proceeded to knead my neck and shoulders as if giving me a tender massage. I had never experienced such a thing. It felt like a laser beam of love being sent right through her soft, little paws into my body. At that moment, without thinking, I said these words: “If I ever find a cat like this, I will adopt it!” I told the story to numerous friends afterwards, shocked that these words had come from my mouth.

Now, back at the shelter, my daughters called me into a side room with a few adult cats. “You have to meet this cat,” they said somewhat urgently. I sat cross-legged on the floor as they placed an orange, domestic short-hair in my lap. Purring, the four-year old named Daisy stood up on her hind legs, leaned toward me and placed her paws on either side of my neck, giving me a gentle massage. As she did, she rubbed her nose on mine and blinked her half-closed eyes slowly, purring continuously. She seemed to be in a state of bliss I could not understand but that I quickly felt myself.

“We have to adopt her,” my daughters said emphatically.

I remembered my words. I knew the truth of them and the truth of my daughters’ plea. Even still, I felt sweat on my brow and a tumultuous anxiety inside. I couldn’t breathe. How could I possibly adopt a cat? The idea was unfathomable to my thinking mind, but all too clear to my heart mind. I pulled a volunteer shelter worker aside, peppering her with questions in a staccato stream. What about claws and furniture? What if she doesn’t get along with our dog? What if, what if, what if? I hoped desperately that something in her answers would affirm that we couldn’t possibly adopt this cat, and I could go back to my long-held worldview. Instead, the answers I received only reassured all my concerns. Nonetheless, my hand was shaking as I signed the adoption papers. This was for life.

She didn’t seem very attached to the name Daisy, so we renamed her Cat, after the cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s whom she resembled. She responded favorably to the change. We learned that she was very vocal and began to understand the meaning of her meows. We meowed back and had delightful conversations. We began to recognize her “love eyes” across the room as the message they were to each of us. Meowing to catch our gaze, she would give a long, slow blink and a slight nod of the chin that was clearly deliberate and spoke volumes to our hearts. We always returned the same blink and nod. Over the years, we began to initiate it ourselves, to which she would always respond in kind.

We received endless face rubs along with the kneading, paw massages that had first won our hearts. Our dogs’ love for us was gregarious and physically palpable, laying across our laps, licking our faces, or wagging with such fervor that their whole bodies moved in unison with the wag. Cat’s love was tender but insistent and ever-present, not just in her physical touches but in her meows and her eyes. She taught us a new language of love.

Perhaps the hardest to convince was our rescue hound, Holton. He took a few years to soften, but Cat was patient. Eventually she would win him over. My heart skipped a beat the first time I found them curled up together napping. She delighted in grooming him almost daily, licking his ears and face, and he delighted in being groomed.

I became a cat proponent. I gave unsolicited testimonials about my previous prejudice and my newfound love of felines. I wondered how I had ever lived without Cat in my life and feared having to ever live without her. Of course, I knew the day would come.

After 12 years in our family, at the age of 16, she passed gently into the higher realm and seemed to know the transition was at hand. I believe she was ready for it.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
― Rumi

Texting with a friend about her death, he responded: “Cat made you a cat person! She has her place in history!”

She does have her place in history— in my history. She dismantled the barriers to love I didn’t even know I had. She needed no sword or shield. My entrenched prejudice against her species was no match for the power she wielded: LOVE.

To my dear Cat—whom we affectionately nicknamed Kitten— I thank you for your life with us, for being so steadfast in the face of my resistance, for making yourself a core part of me, and for never wavering in showing me that love wins.


Pennies from Heaven

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

The first time it happened it was a quarter, not a penny. I was on a trail I’ve walked regularly for over a decade, where I’d never found a dropped coin before, and there it was near the end of my walk. I scooped it into my hand without breaking my stride and tucked it in my pocket. Was it a sign? A message? Ever the skeptic, I decided it would only mean something if the year on it was significant in some way. (more…)

A Love Note to Boston

I have two pairs of pink crocs in my closet. One is mine; the other belongs to one of my closest friends. I have her pair because I brought them home with me when I returned from her memorial service. She died of metastatic breast cancer at 48. 

Komen Breast Cancer 3Day Boston Globe Front Page August 2007 by Justine Hunt Glob Staff
This story was written in 2013 as a response to the Boston Marathon bombing.

0018506-R1-030-13A_1 - Version 2

A fellow walker saw our feet sticking out of our tent together and said, “I see a cute picture!” Grateful she took it for us.

I don’t know why I wanted her shoes. I just did. She’d bought us matching pairs in 2007 when we walked the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day together in Boston, her hometown. They were to be respite for our feet at the end of 20 miles walking each day. That year marked her fifth year cancer-free from when she was first diagnosed. We wanted to celebrate, but even more so we wanted to honor the occasion with an act of endurance, strength and perseverance. Walking 60 miles in three days and raising money for a cure for breast cancer seemed like just the right thing to do.

When I first got home with her shoes, I tried them on. They still had remnants of sand in them from Martha’s Vineyard, one of her happy places and where she’d been just a month before she died. I took the crocs off as soon as I’d put them on. I didn’t belong in her shoes. Yet, having them side by side with my own pink crocs has been a secret comfort in the months since she passed away.

The news of the bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday rattled me. I guess it rattled us all, as senseless, tragic and heartbreaking acts always do. Out of longstanding habit, I had the urge all Monday afternoon to text my friend. We would have traded notes and shared our shock. I would have sought reassurance that she and her family were alright. I felt her absence even more keenly than usual, and was deeply saddened as I thought about how many families would be shaken by trauma and loss from the bombings.

I have spent a fair amount of time in Boston over the years, both before and after the 3-Day Walk, and have always been fond of the city. I’ve collected a lot of good memories there. But covering 60 miles on foot through its streets and communities put it right smack dab in the center of my heart in a way that was altogether more personal and permanent. From the police officers in every town who didn’t just provide logistical support but smiled with kind words, their own stories, funny jokes and moral support, to the throngs of cheering crowds along the route, there’s just something special about Boston. I’ve walked the 3-Day two more times since in my own hometown and I mean no offense whatsoever to the Twin Cities, but no one cheers like Bostonians. It makes me think that the hearty, New England, patriot soul of the city gives its inhabitants an especially deep reverence for acts of endurance, strength and perseverance.

In my sadness on Monday evening, I happened to see the pink crocs in my closet. Just seeing them made me feel comforted, so I decided to put them on. I grabbed what I thought were mine, yet when I tried to slip into them, I realized I’d gotten two left shoes. I pulled out the remaining two thinking I could quickly sort out which was which. I remembered my friend’s shoes as having been far less scuffed and worn than my own and, of course, there was the tell-tale sand that would be definitive proof. Yet, turning the shoes over and over, I couldn’t tell which pair was which. Both are the same size and though the particulars of the scuffs were different, the amount of wear was just the same. The Martha’s Vineyard sand must have long since migrated to my closet floor.

Interestingly, instead of feeling sad, I was actually even more comforted by the fact that our shoes were now indistinguishable. I put on a left and a right and hoped that by luck I had chosen one of each of our pairs.

At the close of each 3-Day, there is a tradition that all walkers who have not been through cancer to take off a shoe and kneel in salute as those walkers who have been through cancer march into the event’s closing ceremonies. It is a small and symbolic way to honor the endurance, strength and perseverance of those who have been through the disease. Each time I have been a part of this ceremony, I have been moved to tears. But the one I remember most and hold closest to my heart was that first time in Boston.

So, Boston, I hope you can see me. Just like in the faded clipping I saved from the font page of The Globe six years ago, I am kneeling on the ground and raising one pink croc high in air, waving it proudly for you in salute and solidarity. We’re all in this together.

Boston Globe 2007 Shoe Salute

PHOTO Credit | Justine Hunt, staff photographer for the Boston Globe, Published on the front page of  the Globe on August 9, 2007.