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Healthcare is Human: Creative Responses to COVID-19 from Martinsburg, West Virginia

Photo: Molly Humphries

(Photo above: Molly Humphries)

It’s not a stretch to say that we are all still grappling with COVID. From a biomedical standpoint, though we have ways of staving off and managing the disease,  we are still seeing daily deaths in numbers high enough for there to be ongoing concerns. New strains proliferate through countries even as the public appetite to follow prevention guidelines wanes.

We have not yet assessed the overall cost the pandemic will have on healthcare workers. Looking at physicians, we know that COVID’s effects are significant and lasting: “Reported manifestations of physician stress have included sleep deprivation, higher rates of depression, somatization, anxiety, obsessive compulsive behavior, and posttraumatic stress. There also has been a greater propensity for physician burnout” (Frierson and Lippmann, 272). These effects extend through the healthcare workforce. This has been documented in an issue brief by the federal government’s Office of Health Policy of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. In their assessment, “…there has been concern about the impact the pandemic has had on health care worker burnout, exhaustion, and trauma as well as the effect on the physical and mental health of health care providers.” Given what we know about the state of healthcare workers, it is intuitive to look to the health humanities for ways to nourish and fortify these workers. One such area is life-writing, which typically includes texts such as memoirs, journals, diaries, letters, and other informal texts (Crawford, 39).

Patient-focused life-writing abounds, and these projects have produced important texts that help physicians understand patient experiences and advocate for compassionate care. Life-writing can and should extend to healthcare workers as well. Allison Crawford asserts that “life writing by practitioners is a relatively understudied field within health humanities, especially when compared to the study of other narrative forms such as narratives of illness experience or pathographies” (41). If this was true pre-COVID, then the time to collect, study, interpret, and honor the stories of healthcare workers will be even more important in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Photo: Molly Humphries

Martinsburg, West Virginia may not immediately come to mind when we think about health humanities. Yet during the early days of COVID Dr. Ryan McCarthy, a primary care physician at the Berkeley County Medical Center (BMC) in Martinsburg, started a project called Healthcare is Human to document not just his own story, but the stories of all the employees working within the BMC. This project may not neatly fit Crawford’s life-writing definition, as it is an oral and photographic storytelling project. That said, through a podcast and a collection of photos it did craft a narrative, one  composed of a mosaic of individual stories. Healthcare is Human chronicles the experience of workers whom we typically associate with healthcare, such as doctors and nurses, but also includes hospital chefs, ambulance drivers, security guards, cafeteria workers, and janitors—in other words, those who often work behind the scenes. This more inclusive approach provides a fuller, richer portrait of the work that happened inside the BMC during COVID.

Oral storytelling is a central feature of Appalachian culture, and, as a physician who came back to practice in his hometown, this culture has not been lost on Dr. Ryan McCarthy. McCarthy’s Healthcare is Human project started in the earliest pandemic days and is still growing. With the help of Molly Humphries, a Shepherdstown, West Virginia-based photographer, their work not only paints a compelling picture of the pandemic experience in a small-town medical center, but also pushes back on prevailing, negative stereotypes of Appalachia. The series celebrates the diversity of the region, featuring many pictures and stories from non-white workers at the BMC. Similarly, it captures how the community came together to accomplish tasks, such as mass testing and mass vaccination efforts. As it turns out, there had been plans for mass vaccination of the region pre-COVID, which, having already brought together various state and community-based organizations, made the eventual COVID vaccination efforts much easier to pull off.

Photo: Molly Humphries

Healthcare is Human humanizes people. Meeting healthcare workers through the podcast  in the context of their workday during COVID,we listen to their stories in their own voices, lending to their authenticity. And, within these stories and images, other healthcare workers may see themselves better represented.

When we think about COVID stories, we tend to focus on cities. That is because many of the images and stories we have already collected come from larger, urban areas, like New York City and Los Angeles. These cities were hard hit and the texts and visuals that emerged from these areas during the pandemic are striking and important. So, too, are the stories of smaller, rural places. COVID took its toll on these locales in unique and specific ways. To have a fuller, richer understanding of the pandemic, we need to share these stories and pictures as well. Health humanities researchers in regions like Appalachia can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic through these artifacts, and, together with other texts, we might paint a more complete and more complex portrait of those who worked through such devastating times. In doing so, we might better understand health workers’ burnout, and this can help us support them and retain them in these roles.

Art historians, for example, have shown that the inclusion of imagery has long been integral to the accessibility of storytelling: “the ability to read and analyze visual objects—whether they be human bodies, cave paintings, hieroglyphics, advertisements, CT scans, or emojis—is a fundamental life skill for the twenty-first century” (Conaty, 101). Images comprise a more universal language, conveying emotion as text and sound are eliminated or recede into the background. This is especially true for Healthcare is Human, where portrait photography plays a key role in the narrative experience. In addition to observational, contextual and formal analysis might be fruitful avenues for appraising these portraits of healthcare workers during the pandemic, providing a sense of the community’s response to the public health crisis. They invite close study, which includes “describing, identifying, acknowledging unknowns, and formulating questions” (Conaty, 105). In the photographs taken by Molly Humphries, we are invited to reflect on the stills, how they might reveal insights into the plight and resilience of her subjects. We can compare these individuals with healthcare workers from other areas, considering both similarities and differences, and this might help us to understand the COVID response in more nuanced ways.

Photos: Molly Humphries

That said, the humanity of this project is, in fact, the point of the project. We see human lives, big and small, depicted during one of the most trying and traumatic experiences in recent history. That is the great and replicable gift of Healthcare is Human. No matter how we choose to analyze the work of McCarthy and Humphries, or those health humanities researchers who follow in their footsteps, let us also not forget to simply be moved by who and what they capture.


Works Cited

Crawford, Allison. “Critical Approaches to Life Writing.” Research Methods in Health Humanities. Edited by Klugman, Craig M. and Erin Gentry Lamb, New York: Oxford University Press, 2019, 39-54.

Conaty, Siobhan M. “Art History.” Research Methods in Health Humanities. Edited by Klugman, Craig M. and Erin Gentry Lamb, New York: Oxford University Press, 2019, 100-114.

Frierson, Robert, and Steven Lippmann. “COVID-19-Related Stress on Physicians.” Southern medical journal vol. 114,11 (2021): 727-731.

Humphries, Molly. Photographs from Healthcare is Human.

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