ICU nurse photographs colleagues to illustrate ‘lived realities’ of Covid

An ICU nurse has been documenting her colleagues’ work through photography to bridge a “growing divide” between the public perception and reality of life on the front line of the pandemic.

Emily Gilhespy, from Bristol, works in a critical care ward in a hospital in the north west of England, working to keep predominantly ventilated and sedated Covid patients alive.

Photography is a hobby for the 28-year-old, but in March last year, shortly after the pandemic began in the UK, she decided to start documenting her experience and that of her colleagues.

“I saw a growing gap, a divide, between the public perception and lived realities of healthcare workers,” Ms Gilhespy told the PA news agency.

“How do you explain intensive care anyway to a non-healthcare person, let alone in the context of Covid?

“This is a moment in history we will consistently look back on… I wanted to find a way I could form almost a window into what we were living.

“You hear so much in the media about PPE… I wanted to emphasise the fact that there is a person behind that… to unmask them.”

Asked which of her photos stand out for her, Ms Gilhespy said: “There’s this one image of my friend Tash and she was smiling.

“That stuck with me purely for the fact that we are potentially working in the most challenging situation, the most pressure we’ve ever been under, but healthcare workers can still smile, can still retain that degree of positivity despite this chaos.

“It captured that resilience and positivity that healthcare staff carry with them into their job, which they still do despite being exhausted, despite feeling like there is no end to this.”

Ms Gilhespy said unprecedented hospital admissions mean being in an intensive care ward is still the only way to fully understand the gravity of the pandemic.

“My photographs can only supply a snapshot, I don’t think you can ever fully convey what it’s like to be in ICU at the moment,” she added.

“We’ve had to expand into different wards, we’ve got makeshift ICUs, our beds are occupied by incredibly sick, young individuals who wouldn’t normally come to intensive care.

“In many ways, it’s harder now than it was back in March because people are exhausted, people are tired and we’re still having to rally.”

Despite some initial “apprehension” about having their picture taken at work, Ms Gilhespy says the response to her images has been overwhelmingly positive from colleagues – with staff from other wards even asking to be involved.

“They’ve used it to show family members… to bridge that gap of understanding and go, ‘This is what I do, this is what I’m going through’,” she said.

“It’s something that they can then have.. that element of having something tangible of this experience.

“Yes it’s been difficult but it’s something to be proud of in many ways… healthcare staff have been resilient and really stood up to this pandemic.”