Calgary ER doctor captures life on front lines of pandemic through photography project

For the past six weeks, Dr. Heather Patterson has visited hospitals in the city to take photos of what unfolds in the hallways and patient rooms — and even in the ICU. 

Dr. Heather Patterson takes sabbatical to document health-care workers, patients and families

Why this doctor is taking COVID-19 photos inside the ER

3 years ago
Duration 2:56
Featured VideoThis Calgary doctor has been documenting COVID-19 from behind the scenes.

A Calgary emergency room physician is capturing life on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic through her camera lens. 

For the past six weeks, Dr. Heather Patterson has visited hospitals in the city to take photos of what unfolds in the hallways and patient rooms — and even in the ICU.

A physician explains test results to a patient. (Heather Patterson)

She is on sabbatical so that she can concentrate on the photography project, and Alberta Health Services has given her full hospital access to complete it.

"As the pandemic began to affect our Calgary hospitals and community, I realized that I wanted to capture what was actually happening inside our hospitals," Patterson told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday.

"I wanted to tell the authentic story of this team of people who have a common goal, and how we're achieving that."

Health-care workers quickly attend to a patient. (Heather Patterson)

A humbling experience

Patterson's interest in photography actually predates her 10 years as an emergency room physician.

It began while she was in medical school, Patterson said, and became a passion that grew over 20 years.

To begin honing the hobby into a craft, she said she took photography courses and learned from talented photographers.

Children from St. Augustine School wrote 'good luck' and 'thank you' notes to health-care workers. (Heather Patterson)

The pandemic prompted her first major project.

Patterson witnessed health-care workers, cleaning staff, families and patients going above and beyond, she said.

She added there was a humanity, and an excellence, that she wanted to document.

"This is my first foray into medical photography, and it's been a fabulous and very humbling experience," she said.

Humanity, celebration, hope

The photography project has been greatly helped by Patterson's experience as a doctor, she said.

She knows the hospital environments; she knows the team members. She knows the work intimately enough to anticipate what will happen before it does.

'This gentleman had just been told that he was going to require a ventilator, and his physician took quite some time to explain it,' Patterson said. 'And he's in a vulnerable moment, and he's looking up at his nurse, and she's looking into his eyes through all of her PPE and showing such empathy and compassion.' (Heather Patterson)

Some patients have allowed her to photograph their experience, and Patterson said she recognizes the sensitivity those vulnerable moments require.

Together, these nuanced understandings allow her to disappear into the background and unobtrusively document authentic moments. She works about six to eight hours a day.

A doctor jumps in the air after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. (Heather Patterson)

"I am capturing, really, a range of experiences. I think some of them are what you would expect, that real gut-wrenching humanity as we observe patients interacting with their health-care workers," she said.

"But there's other things that I'm capturing, as well. There are moments of celebration. There are moments of celebrating our team. There are moments of hope.… There's so much that it's given to me."

The emotional experience

The project will continue until the pandemic is over, and Patterson said that what it has taught her so far is invaluable.

As an ER doctor, she has treated and intubated many patients, and to focus on her work, she feels and debriefs her emotions later, discussing them with colleagues and her husband, who is an ER doctor as well.

A health-care aide has a quiet moment. (Heather Patterson)

Her critically ill patients depend on her clarity of thought, keen leadership skills and good decision making, she said.

In the moment, she acknowledges a tragedy that is happening before her — and then, she sets it aside, because she must.

But behind the camera, her perspective shifts; the lens has allowed her to experience these moments differently.

A health-care worker holds the hand of a patient who is to be intubated. (Heather Patterson)

When she photographed a patient as he was told that he would need to be intubated, for instance, she was able to intimately study the physician's hopefulness, the nurse holding his hand, the shared trust and connectivity between patient and health-care worker.

It has reminded her of the importance of wellness, and discussing our well-being.

A health-care worker and patient. (Heather Patterson)

"When I'm standing at the foot of the bed, running a resuscitation, being the team leader, making the decisions … I can't experience the same emotional experience," Patterson said.

"I identify it and I put it aside, to debrief it later. And as I'm behind the lens, I'm actually doing the extreme opposite. I'm looking for those moments of humanity … and this has been a profound learning experience."

Historic documentation

Eventually, she said, she hopes to display the images in a gallery or in a book, with the proceeds going to people in need.

She wants people to be able to experience what health-care workers, families and patients experienced during this period in history.

Doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, social workers, health-care aides and unit clerks pictured in the moments before a patient arrives in the trauma bay. (Heather Patterson)

"As an academic emergency physician, I hope to share these with the community of medical people in a way that's compelling, to open the opportunity to discuss what we're experiencing, how we're experiencing and open up dialogue," she said.

"But I think the story is greater than that. I think that people need to see this historic documentation, to be able to look back and reflect on what we're experiencing."

Two health-care workers tend to a patient. (Heather Patterson)
A patient is intubated. (Heather Patterson)

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.