In memory of Thérèse Atango, Dr Enry Lushiku and Dr Nicolas Mangbau, members of the staff at Iris Sud Hospitals, lost to COVID.
Traces : marks and imprints left by the whirlwind passage of coronavirus through the Iris Sud Hospitals in Brussels in the spring of 2020.
Traces that deserve to be preserved so that nothing will be forgotten of the courage and the abnegation, the dread and the professionalism of the nurses, doctors, ancillary healthcare workers and logistical teams who faced something that had never been seen before.
To gather their stories, an astute team was put in place: Deborah Cordier, Children’s Psychologist, Delphine Jarosinski, Head of Communication for Iris Sud Hospitals and Chiara Moncada, Advisor in prevention (psychosocial aspects) and co-founder of PEPS (Psychological & Psychosocial Support Unit). All three understood that the men and women who received the applause every evening during the first lockdown without knowing what to do with it, deserved to come out of the shadows of the group labelled “our heroes” and exist in a more individual way.
They contacted two artists, Caroline Lamarche and Gaël Turine. Gaël set up an improvised studio on the hospital sites, in which 145 people in turn took their place. What was said and what happened there will remain a secret between the photographer and those who turned up to the studio. The studio was a place apart, a sort of confined space within the lockdown, a bubble in which a ritual was accomplished that had nothing in common with the usual therapeutic actions. At first there were a few words, the time for introductions, then each one could say - or not say - whatever was on their mind, dare to share a confidence, admit what was usually repressed. Finally the light went out in this space in which thoughts and souvenirs were floating, while Gaël Turine began to take photographs, in silence. His photos bear witness to this crossing. They tell us, in a deeply moving way, that at the heart of our efficient medical systems, behind all the technical gestures, the machines, the protocols and the chemistry, there are women and men whose faces forget nothing of what they experience.
Caroline had a question circulate around the hospital: “What do you want to say (or write) that only you can say (or write) about the period that you just lived through?” She received texts of varying length, some short and sharp, others looser, sometimes fiery, or simply factual - that were no less moving. She also transcribed some recorded accounts, and then read and reread this impressive harvest. Because writers are readers first. They have the very delicate science of knowing, among all the sentences, how to recognise the ones that in a just and fleeting manner can scale the heights of reality. She pinned those passages, careful to preserve the context or enlighten it with the next extract, the next word. She talks about this work as that of a compiler who changes nothing in the words, but who, by putting together the nuggets that remained in her sieve, led to a series of powerful and significant fragments.
Lifting a corner of the veil, the traces gathered together here are a plea for a new kind of attention, caring for the world, caring for others, that alone can be worthy of the sacrifices accepted.
Pascal Chabot Philosopher
I handle the deaths, the samples, the contact with the families, the funeral home, the local administration. I prepare the bodies. During the COVID period, it was very hard. I went in to get the bodies. I was up for everything, even helping the autopsy department. I was in danger because I handled the dead who had been infected.
In the beginning, the orders were all over the place. So, I thought long and hard. Step by step, I became organised. For example, I was the first to decide to not present the body bags closed… Out of fifty-two COVID deaths, I organised around thirty family visits. It was hard for me, it was huge for them. In principle, I couldn’t organise any visits at all. But I accepted to take risks. Even the funeral homes didn’t want to. I placed around twenty bodies in coffins all alone. I gave families a quarter of an hour because I was afraid of putting them in danger. I left their faces and hands visible. I put a clean pillowcase on the hands so that the relatives could caress them. I felt useful. This gave me the strength to show them the face of their dead.
P., mortuary technician
I was working in intensive care and I saw a young colleague who was sick, about thirty-five years old. He had changed so much I didn’t recognise him. I said to myself: “I have two children. Do I give up or go on?” My husband, who supports me, told me: “You can leave your job if you want.” But I said to myself: “We are not doctors or nurses, but the rooms have to be clean.” I was born in a country that has a lot of convictions. I am Cuban and where I come from, we never, ever give up. In Cuba, we say: En Cuba no se rinde nadie – In Cuba, we never surrender. So that’s what I did, what my parents taught me: carry on. Carry on to support my team, my bosses, the public health system, everything. If there is no cleaning, there are no nurses and doctors able to work. And there you are. I carried on.
A., cleaning operative
I chose surgery for a reason: if we operate, it’s because there is hope. And I found myself dispensing end of life care. It was impossible to not encounter these elderly people, who are not allowed any visits. Our faces, our voices are completely unknown to them. And we will be the last. I held the hand of every one of my patients, cried, a lot. I know that mine wasn’t the last hand they wanted to squeeze, the last voice they wanted to hear. They wanted their family. And through necessity, we had to become that, just for the final journey. We had to spend the minimum amount of time in a room, with a double mask, a visor. Even if we didn’t stop – every half-hour, sometimes every quarter of an hour, we opened the door to look – they didn’t ring a lot: they didn’t have the strength to ring. I am not a particularly tactile person, but the accumulation of obstacles changed the way I saw patients, my way of touching them, of looking at them.
For the last offices, we quickly used two disinfectant wipes, front and back, that we then discarded in a sealed bag, to have as little contact as possible, to reduce the risks. This dehumanised death in a brutal way. Last night, that lady who had been there for five days could still laugh with me…
C., surgical nurse
We have many recollections of people who knew they were going to die, who didn’t want to go into intensive care to leave a spot for younger patients, and who departed with truly incredible dignity. One patient said goodbye to his entire extended family, children and grandchildren, through the means of a screen and then we drank a glass of champagne – he loved champagne – and then he said: “Now I can leave peacefully.” We had so many like that…
E., pulmonologist and head of the COVID unit
A lady who cried when the physio touched her. She said: “I’m crying because I’m all alone and nobody has touched me for months.” We saw the disease, but we didn’t see the damage caused by isolation.
F., COVID unit nurse
What has left its mark on me is the loneliness, that of those cared-for and that of the carer.
The cared-for has no visitors, is along in saying “I’m going to have a breathing tube” or “am I going to pull through or not?” Sometimes with only a little tablet for help, from which relatives could say goodbye. They go alone, with no physical family presence.
The carer in intensive care, when he or she walks into a room, is also alone. Alone in taking charge of the patient, alone in having to answer the family on Skype.
That is what really left its mark on me. The loneliness.
D., intensive care nurse
It was one night, in the resuscitation unit. The service was full, all the patients on ventilators. There was so much work that it was difficult to stay with them for long during the phase of coming round, to reassure them.
My patient was a man aged around forty, with no special prior medical history, the father of young children. It was night, he was alone in this room, he was crying. He didn’t stop crying. With the tube, we saw that he was crying, but there was no sound. He held my hand. He didn’t want me to go, but I couldn’t stay.
I looked out the window and I saw a fox crossing the street.
Life was going on despite all the distress and loneliness.
C., intensive care nurse
We transport patients everywhere, the deceased people too. We had a doctor, an orthopaedist, a nurse who died, pleasant people, overnight… Even one of my colleagues, I left her at the exit myself… That’s the way it is (tears). Oh dear, sorry.
All the same, we won a few battles. There are people who got through it and that frankly, is a joy… I can’t describe it.
The saddest moment for me? When we emptied all the trays and I realised that in the whole room, just one yoghurt had been eaten. I said to myself: we can’t leave these people in this state, we have to find solutions. They don’t have the ability to eat, they don’t have the strength. When you are beside a patient, you can stimulate them, reason with them, tell them that that’s how they’re going to get better. But it doesn’t have much impact over the phone: they just want you to leave them in peace.
At first, the dieticians couldn’t go into the COVID unit. Then we got permission to go into the rooms. We were with the patients. Our goal was to respond to their nutritional and health needs. We have a great collaboration with the kitchen and they suggested lots of possibilities.
I’ve been working in nutrition for twenty years and I never experienced such a strong union around the patient. I’m not sure I’ll relive it. This multidisciplinary team around the patient was ideal. It’s what we would like to have every day.
V., head dietician
I had COVID, but I came back to care for the patients. Because I survived, I wanted to pass on a message of hope: you can get better. That was my little speech every time I went into a room… Sometimes that helped. Sometimes, the people, in their distress, found it difficult to understand.
D., COVID unit nurse
I lost my husband at the start of the year. He was a bus driver for thirty-five years. He became a volunteer here, at the hospital, in the emergency department. He was my second husband. A sweetheart. We lived together for twelve years, married for eight. I will never forget the happiness I experienced there.
I came to work. It helped me, because staying at home was not an option. My family were against it. “You’re sixty-three, you’re at risk.” I replied: “No, it’s my work.” I put my heart into it.
During the COVID, I never even saw my grandchildren. I received a photo on a card they made. “We miss you.” The little one was very attached to my husband; he was the one who picked them up from school.
Sometimes I left the hospital and I started to cry. So I went for a walk to get home, ten minutes from here on foot. There you are…
S., cleaning operative
You had to be patient. Explain to families why it wasn’t possible to visit. You had to make them understand, but it was incomprehensible for some.
My job consisted of taking in and encoding the patients, but I could just as easily find myself disinfecting a bed or a table: it was my contribution as a good little soldier.
B., A&E receptionist
My colleague starting coughing, had a fever. I was coughing a lot too. I was told: “You have symptoms, stay at home.” My doctor, who’s also African, told me: “Do like we do in Africa; drink herbal tea, take ginger and keep taking paracetamol morning and evening.”
All I did was sleep.
After ten days, I went back to work. Why did they leave us in these conditions in the beginning, with no masks? There are questions, anger, but who are we to turn to? There was no management, nobody took care of anybody. Nobody asked after me. It was sad, sad, sad. There are no words to put to that.
But we’re here. We carry on.
R., logistics assistant
In the eyes of others, how can I put this, I’m in the technical service, so I know that…we always talk about the… the nursing staff and everything… but I… I find that what I did was… I was there. I was there when it was necessary, and I didn’t quit, right.
What did you do exactly?
I set up everything here, with the senior management of the site. I felt useful. That’s it.
D., maintenance technician
When you come to the counter, I try to act crazy and make you laugh because that’s important to me. I listen to you, too, when that is what you need.
Oh yes, we here at the pharmacy also have an attentive ear. So, dear colleagues, one small favour: be cooler with our clerks. They are there, more motivated every day to prepare everything you need. It’s true that they are complainers, but I swear that they do everything they can to ensure that you lack nothing up there, upstairs.
M., pharmacy assistant
We are not heroes. The true heroes are the male and female nurses who fell just steps from the trenches and the holes made by the shells.
We are not heroes. The teams have received reinforcements. And the salary is guaranteed at the end of the month. A lot of people cannot say as much.
We are not heroes. After the storm, we will go back to being forgotten.
A., COVID unit head nurse
All day long, doctors and nurses running around. “Run! Go find a doctor!” I feel like I’m a magic ball. Once you throw me, I bounce all over the place. We have to adapt, with no training, to the new care equipment, to new ways of working.
When you go home, no hugs with your loved ones. You scrub yourself under the shower as though your life depended on it. Some evenings, tears roll down your cheeks. It’s impossible to talk about the events of the day.
M., logistics assistant
Woking with visors, masks, aprons, during the heatwave was very hard. You have to congratulate those people above reason.
There are lots of people, in the kitchen, who think that we forget them. Because in the media, and elsewhere, the healthcare staff are congratulated, and rightly so. And yet, they are here every day, on the bridge, doing their job like everyone else.
A., kitchen staff
I am Moroccan. I haven’t been home for one year, haven’t seen my family. But my family is here. It’s a small hospital; we know each other well, it’s not like a business. We had the time to fall, to crack, and to return.
M., post-graduate intern in medicine
The media played a bad trick on us. Personally I could only watch TV for two or three days. After, I said to myself: there’s no point in this because I am on the inside. I’m an extra or an actor in this fight against the pandemic.
What really, really affected me was all those patients who died without being really… We were the only ones there to accompany them. We were their child, their faith, their… They are the people who died in silence.
A., COVID unit nurse
The first thing that struck me was that it was like entering a bubble, like in a family. Every one of us forgot their lives outside the hospital to devote themselves to the patients. The way the nursing staff devoted themselves to the patients, listened to them, was impressive: I had never seen anything like it. They went one step beyond in humanity. They must have seen some difficult things.
From the first moments, a desire to do things right, with a rush of solidarity: pensioners who called to say “we’re here to help you”, volunteers who offered help, fire-fighters, lifeguards, colleagues who agreed to change units from one day to the next. I felt a great deal of presence, a little like when it starts to snow and all the roads become impracticable overnight, and despite that, everyone sets off on foot..
P., head nurse
The age and the status of the person were of no importance. We were fighting for life, it was out of the question for people to die, whatever their age. We saved a lot of people all the same.
Emotionally, things affected us much more strongly. We no longer had a shell. Everything was out. At night, we had nightmares.
M., COVID unit nurse
COVID revealed problems that had been in the hospital for a long time. In the end, human beings are not central, while in society that’s what they try to make us believe.
This obsession with yield, this dehumanisation, is something that eats me up. We have healthcare workers marching in the street to change that, but we are never heard.
“You are our heroes”… I don’t need to be thanked, it’s my job. It’s a trend, making human beings central during a crisis, and then it passes, and there is nothing left.
Anonymous, position not given
My son and I liked to cuddle. It was very difficult not to be able to hold him in my arms. The nurse who died was a mother… Similar to my age. That’s what left a mark on me.
S., cleaning operative
My profession is in the shadows. In the shadows of the basement. We make pictures. Transform a virus into pictures.
I apologise for being nothing but a night nurse sent back to invisibility.
Stories: Collectif Hôpitaux Iris Sud
Photographs: Gaël Turine
Editor and text compilation: Caroline Lamarche
Watch the project’s making-of