For Ebola patients, a way to see the faces of those helping

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Marco Werman: Let's turn now from East Africa to West Africa. Imagine you're in the hospital and you have a life-threatening illness. You're sick, and you're alone, and you can't even see the faces of the people caring for you. That's what it's like for patients with Ebola. The healthcare workers treating them are covered from head to toe to avoid contact. Los Angeles-based artist Mary Beth Heffernan thought this was a problem, and that she could help solve it. So she created a way for patients to see their doctors and nurses. Heffernan traveled to Liberia early this year to shoot portraits of the medical staff. They put those portraits on top of their protective suits, so patients could see their faces.


Mary Beth Heffernan: I invited the healthcare workers to offer the expression that they wish that they could have given their patient if they weren't covered up with these suits. So most chose to smile warmly for the camera, and that is what the patients see in this head shot photograph, four by five inches, right on the chest.


Werman: It sounds like a great idea that just kind of stuck once you got there. Were there any challenges?


Heffernan: Sure. One of the challenges was that photographs, literal photographs, are kind of hard to come by in Liberia, and they're expensive to print. It's not like here where we can print them out of any printer and we take that for granted. I think it was hard for the healthcare workers to throw a single-use, lovely portrait of themselves out. That was hard. People wanted to take them home in addition to using them on their PPE. We really had to figure out, okay, is this going to be a printing session for portraits that you take home, or are these going to be used in the clinical environment.


Werman: So did ink and paper become the biggest expense of this project?


Heffernan: I had brought lots of labels, but what I didn't anticipate was that the staffing at the ETUs would be so large. There were 120 staff members to keep the place going 24/7.


Werman: So these photographs on these hazmat suits that would appear on the healthcare workers at these Ebola treatment units, or ETUs, they would get thrown away every day. Is that right?


Heffernan: Yes. That's right. In fact, they were designed that way, so that they would become an intrinsic part of the PPE, or personal protective equipment. And then, like the PPE, get thrown away and then burned afterwards.


Werman: In a way, this is like the visual portrait equivalent of the hello-my-name-is sticky label.


Heffernan: Absolutely.


Werman: What would have been missing, though, if you had just had a name tag?


Heffernan: The difference between what I've done and, say, an ID, is that an ID is tiny, it's laminated, and it's also about authority. It's about differentiating classes of people of power, and what I wanted was to make the patient more powerful. I wanted the healthcare workers to be able to extend themselves to their patients in a way that leveled the playing field a tiny bit more than if they weren't present.


Werman: And did the health workers you met, do they feel that this project actually changed their relationship with their patients?


Heffernan: Yes, they did. Patients actually told them that we like being able to see who's in the suit. The healthcare workers came out and said we no longer look like scary ninjas. And some patients said I didn't know if you were a man or a woman, I didn't know if you were young or old, and one patient said I recognize you from town.


Werman: You're not a doctor, you're not a healthcare worker, you're an artist, and you did this at great risk. Why does this matter to you?


Heffernan: It just seemed to seize me in a way that I had to act on it.


Werman: Well, Mary Beth, we've got a terrific selection of healthcare workers in Monrovia and their PPE portraits from your project at LA-based artist Mary Beth Heffernan, thank you so much.


Heffernan: Thank you, Marco.