Compassion and Heroism

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Story and Photos by Mark Gilvey

In early December 2020, my family and I tested positive for COVID-19. My son, age 29, didn’t show any symptoms, but he had it. We quarantined him to his room (with the internet, X-Box, and cable…is that really quarantined? It sounds like a holiday to me.) My wife had minor symptoms, yet she brought meals in bed to both my son and me. We have an aging pussycat who needs three meds twice a day in the tummy. Since he has a tendency to have accidents in his bed or on the carpet, it means an additional two hours of work each time for my wife to clean. So she really had her hands full.

Both my wife and my son work at Dulles for the same airline. Both of them are masked; my wife even wears latex gloves and puts sterilizing gel on them, and still, they got COVID. I can only assume that when they were home, where no one is wearing a mask, they gave it to one another and then me. I’m not trying to preach, but I believe it is possible to still deliver this menace to your own family, even if you have protection. It makes me wonder if we need to wear masks at home as well. That’s how serious it has become, but enough opinion. Now a little bit about me.

About Me

My trade is commercial photography; I photograph products, services, corporate headshots, architecture, most anything not related to weddings, families, or fuzzy friends. All of 2020, my business took a nosedive, like many photographers’ businesses did. I normally photograph restaurants for Prince William Living. That has been cut off for several reasons, one of which is likely that the editor wants to protect me from catching COVID, and voila—I got it anyway.

I was very fortunate not to have lost my sense of taste and smell, but I got everything else on the list of symptoms. I found I periodically needed to rest as I was out of breath; I could go for a few minutes and then had to stop and recharge. Things escalated, and I had to take it to another level, and that is where this article begins.

I wrote this article because I wanted to express my appreciation for the people in the medical field I encountered during my adventure. I won’t mention any names, and you won’t see faces in the photos because you don’t need to. The important thing is to understand that there really are heroes and angels in our midst. I was in bed for a month. Let’s go!

Primary Care Physician

Being a primary care physician is no picnic. We live in a tap-and-swipe society, and as a patient, it’s very tempting to jump ship when your nose gets out of joint because you’re not being served as fast as you think you should be. My PCP has the most ungodly voice messaging system. Once I get to a place to leave a message, it seems like I never hear back. I use their text messaging service, which is usually faster, but lately, it too has been slow. At one point, I wanted to give my doctor a virtual punch in the nose. But I have seen this office grow since I began going many years ago, so I have to believe they are working with one hand tied behind their back. I think they take the brunt of patient complaints.

They’re not like 9-11 first responders, who rush in to save the day. They have to maintain composure and compassion while possibly working with limited resources. For that, I admire them.

Emergency Care Facility

My wife took me to an emergency care facility because friends and family recommended I get a chest x-ray to check for pneumonia, and this facility accommodated. When we called, the receptionist asked why I wanted to go there instead of the ER. I told him that if I go to you, I’ll get in sooner than the ER. I was also afraid of catching something else because I heard the ERs were pretty full. At this point, I still underestimated the state of my condition and didn’t realize what I had.

As I walked into the facility, I began to hyperventilate. The nurse walked in front of me and asked, “and what is the reason for your visit, sir?” I started to breathe heavier, and she said, “Ok, you don’t have to answer that; please follow me.” She called the doctor, who took my blood oxygen, and then she called the paramedics to take me to the hospital. The paramedics arrived and did their thing. I felt like they asked all the right questions and was glad to see them. I calmed down, and we agreed that I needed the x-ray, but I didn’t need to go to the hospital. They left, and I got the x-ray. The doctor had something else to say and wanted to know why I was still there. My blood oxygen level was the most important, as she explained to me, and I should have been in the ambulance on my way.

My wife told her she would take me directly, and off we went. I started to grasp the severity of my situation when the doc gave me a bit of a tongue lashing: compassion.

Sentara ER

When we arrived at Sentara, I was surprised to see how empty the emergency room was. It took me maybe less than an hour to get into triage.

Mark Gilvey, COVID-19, Sentara

My view for the next day

With that, they told my wife she couldn’t stay and sent her home. Because of COVID, they weren’t accepting any visitors. It must have been hard for my wife. They got me into a room that was home for two days. I knew it was severe, but I still felt like others needed my space more than I did. They shaved my chest and wired me up, gave me morphine when I needed it, and oxygen, and looked after me. I was thankful to be in their hands, very thankful. They did this without judgment, without attitude, and in fact, they were very concerned, friendly and compassionate about my condition.

My Bearded Tech 

He was in my room only to take blood. I told him the compassion he has is just godlike. I saw some of the people coming in throughout the day that were in bad shape. It just fills the heart with joy and hope that there are people like my tech on the front lines who don’t judge. They just “do.”

“As long as you enjoy what you are doing, it doesn’t matter what gets thrown at you. No matter how little money you make, loving what you do is all that matters. You can go very far in life,” I told the tech. He thanked me for the kind words. Through my stay in two ER locations, when I saw him, he gave me a nod, and I knew I hit home, maybe even said what he needed to hear at that moment.

Mark Gilvey, COVID-19, Sentara

Me, on oxygen and wired-up, wearing my winter hat to shield my eyes from the ceiling light.

I hadn’t eaten in a long time, but I knew they had bigger things to worry about than wiping my nose, so I only mentioned it when a nurse came in.

If there was ever an example of the compassion shown by the nurses and staff, it was when they rolled a new patient past my room late the first night of my stay in the ER. He must have been in his twenties, was tall, big build, and in a lot of pain, and he was scared. From what I saw and heard, I suspected he was also a special needs individual. He must have been a lot to handle, and I think it took a lot to sedate him. If that doesn’t take compassion, then I don’t know what does.

He was calm all night and then started again in the morning. It was heart-wrenching to listen to his cries.

My PRO Lickety-Split Nurse

There was one nurse, a woman. You could tell she had been doing this a long time. Very professional, yet with a heart of gold. She must have had the time, because I know there were times when I’d ring for a nurse and wouldn’t see anyone for an hour or so. I had to take my severity into question and the other trauma in the ER, and I remained patient. Whether it was that or if she was just lightning-fast, this nurse was there, apologetic, and was just willing to help me any way she could. She was my night nurse and the first one I asked if I could photograph. I never got to take her photo, but the genesis of the idea for a lead photo came from her. My neighbor is studying to be a nurse. This woman would/should be her mentor.

Other patients came in, and I wondered how grateful they were to be in the hands of these heroes. How many just expected it. Do they know what lengths they go through to help or keep total strangers alive?

Bubbles and Compassion

I had one young nurse with long hair and tan complexion; she reminded me of my niece—full of life, compassion, caring, and professionalism. She was bubbly, happy, and ready to help. She moved me from one area of the ER to another. When we arrived, she helped me into one of the visitor chairs to sit up for a while. Tip: the visitor chairs are way softer than the beds. She gave me my hat to cover my eyes and take a nap. “I hope someone doesn’t look in and think I’m dead and take me to the morgue,” I said. She laughed and went onto her next stop. I went back into the bed later.

COVID, Sentara, Mark Gilvey

A change of view for another day. You can see the Velcro they stuck to my legs to monitor my vitals.

Friendly Filipino

I met another young nurse who was helping me for several hours. She was frequently delayed and very apologetic when she came in to see me. I told her, do not worry. I have seen some of the cases coming in here. Then she had a moment where she began to break down, and I told her, I am in awe of the commitment and compassion you have. As long as you enjoy doing what you are doing, nothing can stop you. You are a model for every business out there. You have to want it so much you can taste it. She said she did and soldiered on.

Mark Gilvey, Sentara

At last, they wheeled my bed upstairs to the third floor. Because of COVID, only one person was allowed per room. The nurse helped move me into the new bed, which seemed to come alive as soon as I got into it. It would move various points of my body and relieve tension. It was almost like I was being hugged by it. Within an hour, I had a full meal, which wasn’t bad at all.


Mark Gilvey, Sentara, covid

A Nurse from the Congo 

Late one night, a tech came in to take my blood. He was polite and very good with the inevitable needle poke for drawing blood. I expressed my gratitude toward the difficult work he was doing and how thankful I was. As he responded, I asked him where he was from: he said the Congo. I thought to myself, isn’t the Congo always in war? OMG. This guy came to the U.S. to escape the Congo or learn more to help in his homeland. The awe of it all.

My Hero Nurse

I was sad to have not gotten a photo of the earlier nurse. As if I wouldn’t find another compassionate individual, in walks my night nurse for the last two days—a young man. I don’t know where he came from, but there was no mention of his father—only words about how great his mother was in steering his direction in life, and a nurse herself. He decided to become a nurse because of his mother. She told him about life and camaraderie and the trying times. A year out of school, he caught a break because of a lack of staff to help with COVID. He was a stellar performer, in this patient’s opinion.

He had a mentor who asked him questions regarding what he was doing. It was like having a live on the spot quiz that even the patient was privy to, so I’m guessing it was a lot of pressure. I wanted to take photos of both of them together, but I could only get the young man shown in the lead image of this article.

They are all miracle workers, in my opinion. I had my eyes opened up to what it takes to do this kind of work. It’s a shame that so many people take it for granted, perhaps even family members of these nurses and tech staff.

It’s also an important reminder to business owners and their staff. You have to love what you do, you have to soak it up, it needs to permeate your very existence, and then nothing will stop you, and you will do your gift as best as can be. Jump in, take a step forward, and drench your body in deep. Show compassion for your clients and your work, just like the nurses do.

As my father used to tell me, “You have to want it so bad, you can taste it!” The medical profession tastes it. Do you?

Mark Gilvey is a local commercial photographer and a frequent photography contributor to Prince William Living.


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