A Privilege Unlike Anything Else: Portraits of Nurses
In 2008 my first wife, Jennifer, was diagnosed with breast cancer. We had been married for five months and Jen passed less than four years later at the age of 40.
Throughout Jen’s treatment we spent a considerable amount of time in hospitals. Extended stays of 12-15 days were not uncommon, and hospitals came to feel like our second home. Despite the considerable effort made by hospital staff and administration to create a peaceful environment and to preemptively meet the needs of every patient, feelings of elevated stress, fear and anxiety were constant, and the emotional and physical toll was extraordinary.
Thankfully, there was another constant: our nurses. We saw them more than anyone else, including our families, and we formed a special bond, an “Us vs. Cancer” mentality. Whether they were relentlessly following up with doctors on our behalf, tracking down extra pillows and warm blankets or just lending an ear, our nurses became our lifeline.
On the days when we had an entire room to ourselves, the nurses would bring in their nail kits and our room would transform into a salon, where Jen could almost feel like she wasn’t a cancer patient stuck in a hospital. Jen’s favorite bakery was located along the route of one nurse’s walk to work and she would often pick up a surprise treat for Jen. On nights when I slept at the hospital, I always awoke with an extra blanket covering me.
Day after day, our nurses were the glue that held everything together.
During the current coronavirus pandemic, the role of nurses has taken on an even greater importance. By putting themselves at risk every time they go to work, nurses exhibit courage, empathy and resilience. Their commitment to care for the sick and suffering is a testament to the strength of their character.
A Privilege Unlike Anything Else is my attempt to say thank you to all of the nurses who make this world a better place. May is National Nurses Month and throughout the month portraits of nurses will be exhibited in places of prominence at the main campus of University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, The MetroHealth System, and The Cleveland Clinic. Alongside each portrait will be the sitter’s response to the question “Why did you become a nurse?”
Before I made the first portrait in this series, I knew this would be an emotional project for me. How could it not be? Over the course of four weeks, I had the privilege of meeting and spending time with 30 local nurses. I listened as each of them shared their experiences and beliefs, their challenges and hopes.
After a year of struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic and social and political upheaval, these conversations were a gift and a reminder. They renewed me and gave me faith in the kindness and good that lies within each of us.
What stood out to me most about each nurse I met was the genuine lack of ego they all shared. Don’t get me wrong, these are confident and extremely capable people, but when it comes down to it, the work they do isn’t about them. It’s about the people they help, and the privilege they feel in caring for and supporting others during some of life’s darkest moments. It’s about the big picture, and it’s a lesson I am so grateful to have received.
About the author: Angelo Merendino is a portrait and brand narrative photographer based in Cleveland, Ohio. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Merendino’s work on his website and Instagram.