Health & Fitness

One I.C.U., 5 Sufferers: A Totally different View of the Virus’s Toll

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A hospital is an invaluable vantage point from which to understand an epidemic. It provides a glimpse of the severity of an illness in a geographic area, a sense of whether cases are going up or down, insights on which segments of the population are most affected and clues to how well the health care infrastructure is holding up.

Soon after coronavirus cases began emerging in the United States, my editor, Rebecca Corbett, suggested reporting from within a hospital, to bring to bear my training as a physician and my prior work as a reporter on infectious disease outbreaks. After focusing initially on the crisis in New York City hospitals, I went this summer to report on a surge of cases in Texas at Houston Methodist Hospital, having spent time there in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Officials there had agreed to give me, as well as my colleagues from the photography and video departments, exclusive access in the hospital, working with us to seek permission from patients we sought to interview.

We also came to know many staff members. Near the end of one reporting day, Lluvialy Faz, a nurse in a coronavirus intensive care unit, talked about having been assigned only Hispanic patients for weeks.

“They look like my aunt, they look like my sister, they look like my mom,” said Ms. Faz, who is Mexican-American.

For Emily Rhyne, a Times cinematographer, that comment, and the fact that a majority of patients in that unit were Hispanic, “set off a light bulb” that led to our multimedia project on the impact of the virus on Houston’s Latino communities, told through the stories of five patients along a single hallway in the I.C.U. Instead of producing narrated videos, which we had been doing, for this story we would integrate video, photos, words and graphics built around the voices of patients, families and medical providers.

“There is no sugarcoating the toll that this disease can take on the body, and I wanted to juxtapose this intensity with the softness with which their loved ones described them,” Ms. Rhyne wrote when I asked her to describe her vision for the project. “Some of the visuals aren’t easy to look at, and they shouldn’t be. Capturing this reality while retaining the person’s dignity was imperative. Photographer Erin Schaff and I were constantly discussing this.”

One of my favorite parts of both working at The Times and reading The Times is the way that stories are now told across a range of modalities — words, photographs, videos, audio and graphics — each with its own strengths in conveying the realities of our world. Our team in Houston comprised me, the word person; Ms. Schaff, a staff photographer who had been my partner in reporting on the public hospital system in New York City; and Ms. Rhyne, who had done compelling work covering another New York hospital. Our perspectives, and those of numerous editors, producers and members of our video, photography, investigations, graphics and art departments (Sameen Amin, Solana Pyne, Emma Cott, Lanie Shapiro, Beth Flynn, Gray Beltran, Rumsey Taylor and Juliette Love, among others), came together to shape the project.

We knew the statistics — Hispanic communities had been disproportionately affected by the health crisis. But standing in that I.C.U. hallway with the patients around us in room after room, their lives in the balance, made it much more real.

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Updated August 12, 2020

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Ms. Rhyne and Ms. Schaff spent long days filming and photographing the patients, families and members of the hospital’s staff. Ms. Cott, a senior video journalist, spoke with some of the families remotely. And I also spent days reporting in the I.C.U., visited with some of the families, worked with the hospital’s data specialists and stayed in touch with the medical teams and patients after we left to keep up with their conditions. Although we were in Houston for over three weeks as we reported this and other stories, it took many more weeks to assemble all the pieces.

It was striking “how crushingly hard and scary it is for families not to be able to be with their loved ones in the hospital” because of coronavirus restrictions, Ms. Schaff reflected. She added that it was especially meaningful to document the moments when one patient, Ana Flores, had a video call with her husband, Domingo, and her daughters for the first time after she came off a ventilator. Our team had been present for similar virtual visits when she was unconscious and her outcome was unclear.

One thing that will stick with me is the bravery of I.C.U. staff members. They treated more severely ill patients at the same time than they ever had in their careers, all while putting their own safety on the line. They still showed up to work every day with hope and determination, even if they sometimes shed tears.

For Ms. Rhyne, the entire reporting process “moved me at my core,” she wrote. “A brother pleading to God to save his brother, an indomitable grandmother fighting for her life.” Speaking with families, she said, “painted a fuller picture of what we stood to lose from the virus.”

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