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‘Through a nurse’s lens’: MUSC nurse documenting COVID-19 fight

An ICU nurse at Charleston's MUSC is documenting the fight against COVID from the frontlines, revealing what the public never sees.
Published: Jan. 25, 2022 at 7:24 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 25, 2022 at 1:43 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (CBS News/WCSC) - Over the past two years, the most serious effects of the COVID pandemic happened mostly behind closed doors, in private homes and hospitals, where more than 800,000 Americans have died and many more have been sick.

Former news photographer turned Charleston ICU nurse Alan Hawes is documenting part of that enormous human toll in pictures and CBS News told his story.

When Hawes goes to work at the Medical University of South Carolina, he brings with him a special ability when he cares for the sickest of the sick COVID patients. He takes pictures of what people will never see.

Before he became a nurse 11 years ago, he spent 23 years as a newspaper photographer. Those skills allow him to tell the stories of the patients.

Alan Hawes spent 23 years as a news photographer before becoming a registered nurse. He now...
Alan Hawes spent 23 years as a news photographer before becoming a registered nurse. He now works in the ICU at Charleston's MUSC.(CBS News)

Hawes speaks about the patients whose stories he documents with images. One of them, Ryan Simpson, was one they had to urgently send to their cardiac intensive care unit because of heart damage Hawes attributes to COVID.

“His heart was beating so fast for many days,” Hawes says, adding his heart rate was 135 to 165 beats per minute.

One of Hawes’ photos shows Ryan’s wife who arrived to see her husband in the hospital.

“So this is the first moment that she saw him that day as she just stood in the doorway and was, I think, kind of taken aback by all the people in the room as they were preparing to take him to the operating room,” he says.

Many frontline nurses have said, “If you saw what we see....”

Hawes convinced South Carolina’s to allow him to give sight to what caregivers routinely see.

“This is a woman who is very sick,” Hawes says of another photo. “She was with us for a long, long time and her family brought in this prayer cloth that they wanted to stay with her at all times.”

The family was not able to visit, but a small prayer cloth was their representative.

“At one point, they did get to visit, but they only were able to look through a window and they could see the prayer cloth inside the room,” he said.

She did not survive her battle.

More of Hawes’ photographs document COVID’s grip as it tightens. He spoke of one patient he photographed texting loved ones and explained the reason he took the photo.

“I felt like I knew where he was going. I knew it was going to happen to him in the next couple of days,” he said.

Two days later, he was barely responsive. The patient, Hawes says, is still alive and still at the hospital.

Hawes says he was unvaccinated.

“I have quite a few times had a patient who’s unvaccinated, and when they come in, I’ll look at them and I think to myself, ‘You did this to yourself.’ And I’m like, ‘I can’t invest any emotion in you.’ It’s part of being a good nurse, having empathy and you’ve learned,” he said. “Once you hear the stories of some of our patients from their family members, you can become a fan of that person and you just know that they’ve made a bad decision.”

Hawes captured this heartbreaking image of a nurse who just had to tell a critically ill...
Hawes captured this heartbreaking image of a nurse who just had to tell a critically ill patient's wife that it was time to say goodbye to him.(CBS News)

Hawes says nurses are broken right now. He says he feels like he is.

He says he worked for a year-and-a-half to get MUSC’s permission to photograph the patients.

“I think the time when I got approval to do the project, I titled my email, ‘Public service project.’ And I think that’s what made the difference,” he said.

Patients and family members give him permission to photograph them.

“I think people have a message that they want to get out there,” he says.

His images include a mother holding a picture of her newborn she cannot touch and a girlfriend who keeps a bedside journal.

“Every night I tell all my patients, all my family members, this is a roller coaster,” Hawes says. “This is two steps forward, one step back.”

One of his patients, Keam, who was able to tolerate a ventilator without heavy sedation managed to write a message on a small whiteboard: “I feel miserable.”

“As the day went on, she ended up getting a little bit more sick,” Hawes said.

So he ordered a guitarist to provide music therapy. He says he is hopeful she will survive her fight.

“I think so, just because she’s got her, she’s so unique and just her personality is she’s just got such a spark of life, I can’t imagine, if she has anything to do with it.”

Hawes even found himself caring for a fellow nurse, Ryan, who was triple-vaccinated but a life-long asthma patient. COVID left him struggling for breath even during a short conversation.

Another patient, Joel David Croxton, who Hawes said had the heartstrings of about every nurse in the intensive care unit when he was there, was 72 when he died.

One of Hawes’ photos shows the nurse who broke down after calling Croxton’s wife to tell her it was time to say goodbye. Another shows Croxton’s wife, Sandy, arriving to hold his hand and a nurse using an iPad to Facetime with a chaplain.

At the end of Hawes’ interview, there was a surprise. Croxton’s wife arrived to see Hawes one more time.

This time, they just held each other.

No pictures needed...just thank-yous, to each other.

Reporter: ‘It really moved me’

CBS News Lead National Correspondent David Begnaud has told countless stories about COVID-19 from the start and the healthcare workers who spent the pandemic on the frontline. This story is about all of them.

“It really moved me,” he said of the assignment, calling it a privilege to be in Charleston and see the work going on inside MUSC. “Here’s a guy who worked in our business, on the other side of the camera, capturing what we see.”

Alan Hawes, left, talks to CBS News' David Begnaud.
Alan Hawes, left, talks to CBS News' David Begnaud.(CBS News)

He said Hawes wanted to deliver on what journalists everywhere hear from those healthcare workers all the time: “If the public could only see what we see, if only we could show them what we see daily, they might believe it.”

“But Alan does that. He gives us sight to see exactly what they see,” Begnaud says.

He credits Hawes’ tenacity for pushing so long to get permission to document the fight against the pandemic.

“It really speaks to his character and his passion for what he does and the message he wants to send everybody,” he says.

He acknowledges the uphill battle Hawes fought to be able to bring his camera into th hospital because of privacy laws and HIPAA.

“When he finally called it a public service project, it really speaks to his character and his passion for what he does and the message he wants to send everybody,” Begnaud said.

Begnaud said since they recorded the story in Charleston, one of the patients in the story, Keam, has become even sicker and is now critically ill. Hawes’ colleague, Ryan, has since been released from the hospital.

Begnaud described one shot Hawes took while holding an IV bag in one hand and his camera in the other.

“I mean, that’s how important he feels it is to document what they’re doing on the front line,” he said.

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