The Front Line At Home: A Health Care Worker's New Normal
The daughter of health care worker in the New York City area portrays her family during the pandemic. Her photography gives witness to her mother's determination to live fully in a new normal. — Laura Beltrán Villamizar, NPR photo editor
My mother works as an emergency room technician at NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville, N.Y. This year, while I sought ways to work online and my father telecommuted, my mother has been risking her life to take care of others.
My mom is one of the health care workers you meet in the triage ward. Maybe she drew your blood or monitored your heart. If you succumb to the coronavirus, she'd be one of the staffers transporting your body to the overflowing morgue.
I wasn't able to photograph her at the hospital. So like other photojournalists confined to their homes, I turned the camera to my own life and family. I focused on what I've always seen: my mother's rituals and the subtle changes around our home.
In the spring, before wearing masks was common, my mother wouldn't leave the house without one. She'd return from a 12-hour shift with trenches dug into her face by the N95 she had to reuse for a week at a time.
Many Americans have now returned to a semblance of life, but frontline families like ours continue to bear the greatest risk in this pandemic.
When my mother left Haiti in 1979, she left behind my infant older sister and my father, who worked as an accountant at an elementary school. In the U.S., my mother initially assembled hand saws in a steel tool factory while attending school, then as a cashier at a department store.
By the time I was born in 1987, she and my father were both working in corporate America. My mom was working at an investment firm, but she had other career interests, so she began taking courses at Iona College. A philosophy course on death and dying inspired her to leave the corporate world.
At age 38, she began working in child care and then as a nurse's aid, all while caring for our family and taking college courses when she could.
It took about 20 years, but she was incredibly proud when she earned her degree from Westchester Community College. Shortly after that she began working in the emergency room.
Her education was in pursuit of a lifelong dream. As a young girl, my mom had wanted to become a nurse like the ones she saw as a child back home. She liked how neat and clean they looked. She especially liked the little cap the nurses wore, a cherry on top of the uniform, head-to-toe in white.
I thought of this story as she placed a cap, this one blue, on her head. It was a new addition to her hospital uniform. She bought it herself, as a protective measure, at a time when any added precaution was welcomed in the face of a PPE shortage.
My mother used to like looking very pretty going into work, wearing different earrings, makeup, head wraps and Afros. Now she was taking every precaution to limit exposure. No more earrings, no hairstyles — just three layers of masks, to keep her N95 from being contaminated.
At home we were all glued to the news, watching stories of health care workers who had to keep their distance from their loved ones. More than 1,300 health care workers in the U.S. have died from COVID-19.
My family maintained distance from the public during lockdown, but the risk came into our home every night around 11:30. We didn't hug. We kept our distance when possible, though my parents still shared a bed. We'd sit down for a movie on the couch, maintaining space between us. She lovingly pushed me away on Mother's Day, even as I tried to steal a hug from behind from time to time. We joked, but the gravity of the moment was always at the back of our minds. Eventually we gave up distancing. It didn't seem right rewarding her dedication to strangers with isolation in her own home, so we accepted that if she got sick, we'd all get it.
Infection isn't the only thing frontline workers risk bringing home with them.
Sometimes she has nightmares, she told me, about patients transferred to the intensive care unit for intubation. She'd dream she was hyperventilating, or dream of patients she wished she could go check up on, but instead had to compartmentalize away to get through her shift. "I just do what I have to do and get out," she says, with a bit of a nervous laugh about being scared on the job.
My mom has tried to hide the stress she's been under, but she isn't always successful. "I feel stressed when I'm off, when I'm watching other people's stories," she says. At work she's too busy to really think deeply about what she's doing. "In the morning I wake up, say my prayer, and go to work and I'm very careful."
Sometimes she calls home on her break with nothing much to say. I found out that sometimes something really bad happens at work and hearing from us helps her feel better. Knowing that, I never miss her afternoon call.
Amazingly, my mother is eager to do this work. "I'm glad I can take care of others. They're giving us their body to take care of. It's a beautiful job we are doing, but I wish it weren't to this magnitude." Over the years she's told me countless stories of families that have thanked her for giving great care. She's eager to continue doing so with love.
Death has always been an amorphous possibility, as many have reminded us in a morbid attempt to downplay this pandemic. Only now it's more of a probability for frontline workers and their loved ones.
I've photographed my home life in spurts over the years. My intent behind these photographs now is the same as it always was — capture the now, for it may never happen again. I now realized that I always photographed my mom because I knew one day I'd lose her. The only difference is how clear and present the danger has been this year. I really thought these would be the last times we'd have together. It's the kind of thinking that makes every waking moment that much sweeter and worth savoring.
We speak often now of a new normal. We all need to do our part to get through this pandemic. My hope is that we do it in a way that centers around the safety of people who make our new normal possible.
In the meantime, my mother checks the countdown clock on her phone that tells her how long until retirement — about a year. She keeps scheduling dance rehearsals and recently ordered a flapper costume to perform in one day.
The weather is getting colder and coronavirus cases are surging while fall ushers in the flu season.
But my mother, Raymonde Elian, remains certain and steadfast in her duties. She makes room for hope in this new normality of ours. "We have to keep living, she says. "We don't know how much longer we have."
Melissa Bunni Elian has worked as an independent visual journalist since 2013 and is a 2020 graduate of Columbia Journalism School. Her work focuses on recentering people on the margins of society, culture from the African Diaspora and structural inequality. Follow her on Instagram @ hellobunni .
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