Our hospital, our NHS: what it was like to photograph an ICU in the Covid-19 crisis | Jonny Weeks

By Jonny Weeks

Like many people around the country, I stand on my front doorstep at 8pm every Thursday to clap for carers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet when I did so for the first time last month, not knowing for sure if my neighbours would join me, I realised I knew little of the people for whom I was clapping.

Who are the nurses, doctors, cleaners, clerks, porters, researchers and consultants on whom so many lives depend?

And what are their stories?

I was born at Walsgrave hospital in Coventry on 15 August 1982, so it felt appropriate that I should visit its modern counterpart, University Hospital (UHCW), to document the stories of everyday heroism within.

My first day on site began with a shave. I had to be “fit-tested” for an FFP3 mask – a form of personal protective equipment used in critical care – but beards are strictly prohibited because they prevent a tight seal. Two blunted razors later, I donned my mask and a nurse squirted a liquid into my face. “Can you taste doughnuts?” she asked. I couldn’t, which meant my mask was tight.

I felt guilty for receiving precious PPE, but was told that the hospital had ample resources, thanks to diligent planning and that the healthcare staff wanted their stories to be heard.

As I walked through the corridors and into the less contagious wards, initially wearing only a basic surgical mask, the hospital was so quiet that it hardly felt like a pandemic at all. I had expected alarm bells, doctors in hazmat suits pinging from bed to bed, and the sound of patients struggling to breathe. Instead, I passed rows of empty beds – entire wards on standby – and nurses in minimal PPE calmly proceeding with their rounds.

I glimpsed some patients, though many were tucked away in private rooms or dorms. Most looked exhausted. I asked one man for permission to photograph his legs through a window as he texted loved ones. He agreed. As I peered through the lens and into his room, it was no longer the quietness that struck me – it was the sense of isolation. Like all Covid-19 patients, this man was physically separated from his friends and family.

The following day I met a recovering Covid-19 patient who was soon to be discharged. His laboured speech and weakened body illustrated the sheer destructiveness of the virus. It was also my first experience of wearing additional PPE – latex gloves, a visor and a flimsy apron. By the time my five-minute interview was done, I was sweating profusely and could hardly concentrate on the multiple rounds of handwashing required before I could leave the room.

Jonny Weeks donning PPE before visiting a patient on an amber ward.
Jonny Weeks donning PPE before visiting a patient on an amber ward. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

I learned more about the hospital, the treatments patients were receiving and the symptoms most were experiencing. More importantly, I learned about individual members of staff, their skills, their personal lives and their sense of duty.

Most were working voluntary overtime, many had family and children at home, some were scared for their safety. “I’ve always been a naturally caring person,” one told me. All 9,000 employees could easily have said the same.

One interview in particular, with bioscientist Ranveer Singh Chaven, was particularly poignant. He spoke of his desire to hug his mother again.

Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, there was plenty of light relief throughout the hospital. I spotted Stacey Gavin in the medical decisions unit. She was wearing a “bride to be” sash, and struck a pose momentarily as I turned around with my camera. In times of stress and distress, it seems a smile is one of the most valuable things you can bring to a hospital.

It wasn’t until my last day at the hospital that I was taken into the intensive therapy unit, where the sickest patients are kept on life support. I knew my experience and perception of the NHS would be forever altered by what I would witness in ITU. I also knew I had a duty to photograph it honestly and respectfully.

A team of medics proning a patient in ITU.
A team of medics proning a patient in ITU. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

The patients I saw were almost all sedated. They were profoundly ill, immobilised by organ failure, and I knew some would not survive the week. One wore a breathing apparatus which covered his entire head. It was a sight I will not forget. Yet there was a sense, even in ITU, of calm and control among the medical staff. They were providing dutiful care to every patient in their hour of need.

I looked around the ward with a sense of admiration. Many of the medics were my age or younger. I thought to myself: here they are, the subjects of my applause.

Jonny Weeks is a photojournalist and picture editor