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.
“Healthy people base their lives on healing, authentic stories. Empowerment comes through the process of telling those stories.” — Theologian Matthew Fox
The keepers and tellers of our stories are precious people. We all do it to some degree, I think, even if we don’t realize it. And as Matthew Fox points out, the pay off for telling stories– healing, authentic stories– is not just a brief interlude of good entertainment, but rather an experience of empowerment, if we allow it to be. I’d like to tell you a story about a storyteller who understand this idea inside and out. In fact, he lives and breathes the idea daily. His name is Charles Hale and he shares his work at Stories Connect Love Heals.
A voracious reader of anything New York and its history, Charlie is just as often pouring over an edition of The New York Times from the 1800’s as he is today’s news. He scours any record he can find in search of details about his ancestors, Irish immigrants who settled in New York City and worked hard to build a life there, yet left behind precious little in the way of letters, photographs and evidence of their lives. Without these kinds of personal artifacts to help him know and understand his grandparents, great grandparents and great greats, Charlie uses bits and pieces of historical records, often finding only tiny shards at a time, and weaves them together with a discerning eye and a compassionate heart in a way that brings past generations to life again.
Charlie has a name for his work. He calls it “breathing of an ancestor’s space and time.” I get goosebumps every time I hear him say it. No small feat, Charlie actually manages to put us in the shoes of his ancestors. Literally. He has been known to retrace the steps that his great grandparents must have taken in traveling from home to work. He researches what the weather was like on the day of a particular event he’s unearthed. He finds out what buildings existed at the time so that he’ll know what his ancestors would have passed by as they walked. He learns what headlines they would have read in the morning paper. By the time Charlie is finished with his story, I most certainly do feel as though I am breathing with his ancestors in their space and time. I can practically smell the coffee that was at their breakfast table.
In a recent conversation, I asked Charlie about his passion for storytelling and where it comes from. To answer my question, he told me of an exercise he’d once done to find the one word that describes him best. After a lengthy process of elimination, comparing words and honing down to the ones that felt the most true to who he is, he came at last to a single word: connection. And stories, he said, connect us. “When you tell a good story, if you tell it well, the other person can get into your space and share a moment with you. When we share a moment together, we literally breathe of each other’s space and time. And when we breathe of each other’s space and time, we create community.”
Excerpts from our conversation form the storyline of this video. At one point I thought I might provide a voice-over narrative to tell Charlie’s story. But in the editing, I found that Charlie’s voice and words tell his story best. So I offer you a moment to share from our chat– and a chance to breathe of Charlie’s space and time.
*Huge thanks to author Jean Raffa for bringing the Matthew Fox quote to my attention. I highly recommend her blog, Matrignosis: A Blog About Inner Wisdom, as a thoughtful, thought-provoking place to visit.
**On a musical note, the piano composition in this video was graciously created by Barbara McAfee, http://barbaramcafee.com
When I was four years old, I asked everyone to call me “Cowboy Bob.” I can hear myself pausing indignantly and growling, “Don’t call me Lucy. Call me Cowboy Bob.” I cannot recall how long this phase lasted, what prompted it to start nor what caused it to end, but when I think of this era in my life, I smile.
About the same time, perhaps a year or so later, I received a gift from my parents– a ukulele. What I really wanted was a guitar and, in all honesty, I was offended by this toy-ish instrument. Didn’t they take me seriously? Didn’t they know I was ready for the real thing? I was almost six, and in my mind I was an adult already. I don’t know if Cowboy Bob and the ukulele are linked, but somehow I feel they are.
In the 40 or so years that have passed since then, my musical life took a lot of twists and turns but never took off. I begged for piano lessons. Got piano lessons. Begged to quit piano lessons. Quit. I got a guitar. Took lessons. Never practiced. Quit. And at some point, I put away all instruments for a long time.
Somewhere in my 30’s, the guitar called to me. I picked it up and this time I didn’t quit. I don’t have the soul of a virtuoso, nor the patience to practice enough to truly master an instrument, but I found out why I was so drawn to these instruments and to music. An unknown, untrained place deep in a corner of my heart told me I that I needed to put my stories to music to save them, to savor them, to share the beautiful truths that lived in them.
I bought a ukulele and started playing it again. It felt so at home in my hands, like it belonged there, like it was always supposed to be there. Why on earth had I ever put it down?
Recently, I was looking on ebay at vintage ukuleles– old instruments with dings and nicks and personality. I wasn’t looking for a fancy or expensive instrument, but one that had a history in it. When I came across a uke with the Harmony logo on it, I recognized it instantly and realized I already had what I was looking for. It was on a shelf at my parent’s house.
One phone call to my mother, a few days of waiting, a UPS delivery, and voila! My old ukulele was back in my hands. I put new strings on immediately and tightened the sticky tuning gears to get them hold a tune. I admired the nicks and dings in the uke’s body, history that I had put there myself.
Almost immediately, the ukulele began to show me a song. It was about coming home and about being welcomed back; about what we toss away and what we carry forward; about what makes us leave and what causes us to return. Most of all, it was about the “knowing” that is always with us but that sometimes takes a long time to learn.
Looking back, I realize that Cowboy Bob had an important piece of wisdom for me that I knew all along and yet had missed at the same time. The cowboy in me was saying loud and clear: “Take me seriously. Listen to me. I have something to say!”
I had tossed aside the ukulele because I misjudged it, underestimated it, didn’t think it was big enough or serious enough to hold all my intentions, my ambitions. And yet, many years later, I found it was the only instrument I ever needed.
I am a pack-rat of the highest order. I save everything. Well, not everything. I save memories. Photographs, letters, old cassette tapes with recordings of friends and family, and ancient family movies. But the problem is that if you save everything, you sometimes can’t find what you need when you need it.
For months I had been thinking about an old cassette tape that my father recorded for me on the weekend of my graduation from high school. While I was out at parties with my friends, my father recorded messages from family members visiting for my graduation. What I remember most from that tape is my grandfather’s laugh. I kept replaying the tape in my mind, but I desperately wanted to find the real thing.
My grandfather, Forrest Lee Mathews, was a booming presence, someone who was prone to taking people by surprise when he spoke. He said exactly what he thought—no mincing words. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a down-to-earth eye on the world. Every time I listened to the tape, I could feel the delicious tension in the room when my father asked his father to record a message for me. My grandmothers had just delivered their messages, short and sweet, and while I cherish the sound of their voices on that tape, I can hear their discomfort at being recorded. “Lucy, we are so proud of you,” said one. “We are so happy to be here, Lucy,” said the other.
When the microphone got to my grandfather, I could practically hear the collective holding of breath as everyone waited in anticipation of what he might say. He began to speak slowly, with all the natural warmth and charm that was his essence. I have always wondered if he thought in advance about what he would say, or if he simply made it up as each word rolled off his tongue. In his gentle southern accent, he proceeded to deliver a message that surprised everyone and resulted in laughter around the room. I think even he was surprised at how funny everyone found his comment. He, too, began to laugh, and got so “tickled” (as we say in the south) he barely got his closing sentences out. The moment is so candid and real, the laughter so unplanned and so true, that I feel lighter when I listen to it. And I feel closer to my grandfather. It’s as if he’s in the room with me.
The good news is that I did find the tape. The clip here is for anyone who is curious to know exactly what my grandfather said that day. And I’m now taking more seriously the chore of cataloging and organizing all my pack-rat treasures because they hold so many important memories for me.
But the bigger question that has arisen for me from all of this is: how do we “archive” the ones we love? What bits and pieces, handwritten notes, recorded audio do we select to create a full picture of someone? Bigger yet, perhaps, how do we archive ourselves? What is the essence of me that I will want my granddaughter to search for one day?
Of course, there is no simple checklist. The answer is personal to each one of us. In thinking of my grandfather, I wanted most to hear his laughter. In fact, that’s a sound I cherish about everyone dear to me. But there’s so much more that can help create a full picture of someone– hearing a narration of a familiar story; reading a handwritten letter that captures a moment just after it unfolded; hearing someone speak about what matters most to them; and, of course, looking at photographs or watching a home movie. We can capture so much in this digital era, but how do we make sure we capture the most important things?
So I am posing the question rather than answering it– what relics or treasures are most important to you about the ones you love or about yourself? Is anyone else a pack-rat like me, squirreling away treasures of memory? (I know you’re out there!) What do you keep and why?
Have you ever noticed how your mood is lifted when you spontaneously catch the eye of a stranger and share a smile in passing? So often, we stay in our own private worlds, our defined spaces of friends and family, of familiar routines. But once in a while– sometimes on purpose, sometimes by serendipity– we connect to someone we don’t know and it lifts us up. To me, those moments are the small reminders of a big idea– that we are all connected and that behind the face of every smiling stranger, there’s a story.
A couple of years ago, in a Tai Chi class I was taking, my curiosity was piqued by a woman I hardly knew who had a hobby I never imagined I would find fascinating. She was a quiet presence in the far corner of the room, taking the same spot each week, as we all seemed to do. Tall and slim, with her long gray hair pulled back in a pony-tail, she moved gracefully, purposefully, silently.
One day, I happened to overhear her describing her needlepoint projects and was captivated. I edged to the outskirts of the group that had gathered around her as she showed her work and described it. Listening to her speak, it was almost as though her philosophy of life unfolded in every stitch of her work.
A few weeks later I gathered the courage to approach her and ask a favor. I wanted to tell her story, to record her voice, to photograph her work, to let her wisdom unfold through her description of her hobby. At that point, I was only just beginning to explore the realm of mixed media storytelling. I had barely any samples of my work to show her to give myself some credibility in asking. I asked anyway. And she said yes. I was stunned that she would trust me with something so personal as her own story when I could only give her a vague notion of what I wanted to create.
I had envisioned a story based on audio and images featuring her face, her gentle countenance, her words, and the colors and textures of her needlepoint projects. In my original plan, her voice and face would be at the forefront and I would be invisible– an unseen editor creating a vehicle for her story to tell itself. Yet the day I interviewed her, I learned that she did not like being in the spotlight and would prefer that her face and name not be featured in the story I would create.
So I did the only thing I could think to do– I became her narrator. While those who know me best will tell you that I am not shy about hamming it up and being the center of attention in small gatherings of close friends, when it came to this realm of sharing stories of heart and substance, I felt shy and was more comfortable being an invisible hand behind the story. But the thought of letting a good story go untold was too much for me and nudged me forward.
I first mixed this story in 2009 and shared it with family and friends. The anonymous subject of my story became known as “The Threads Woman” amongst my friends. Several said they wished they could meet her, have coffee with her, learn more about her, be her friend. They, too, had been captivated by what I saw and heard.
Remixing the original materials with the newer software and techniques I now use, I was pleased that the heart of this story is as compelling to me now as it was when I first heard it. And just as “The Threads Woman” said yes to the story idea originally, she has graciously allowed me to share her story more widely, reminding us that we are all connected and that we all have a story to share.