When COVID-19 came to this area, no one knew what to expect. Horror stories came from other parts of this nation and from other parts of this world. Computer models predicted hospitals would be overrun with patients who couldn’t breathe as the invisible enemy, a microscopic virus, attacked their lungs.
At Southeast Hospital in Cape Girardeau, staff prepared for the worst. As they swallowed their personal fears and anxiety and donned their personal protective gear to battle COVID-19, they moved from being ordinary people into the realm of hero.
They may not have thought of themselves as heroes, but they are.
On May 6 and 8, Joe Craig, founder of the Soulmarks Foundation and Craig Photography in Dexter, brought his Hero Project to the hospital. During a two-day photo shoot, Craig took more than 200 portraits of hospital staff.
On Friday, May 29, Craig and his team returned to the hospital to unveil more than 200 portrait prints as gifts to the staff. Each person received a Soulmarks gift of legacy art; a boxed art print signed by Craig and a full-sized digital file, which retails for $450 at any of his studios. The overall value of the gift to the hospital staff was more than $100,000.
As some of the “heroes” shared their intimate stories, tears came to their eyes and voices broke.
Anesthesiologists were called upon to insert breathing tubes into COVID-19 patients. They were truly frontline workers.
Anesthesiologist and CRNA Eric Pruemer was photographed with his wife, Carolyn, and two daughters, Ericka and Carly, all of whom work at SoutheastHEALTH.
“I work in OB [Obstetrics] and I heard through the grapevine that my daughter, Ericka, had to intubate a COVID patient in a CTU. She’s pregnant, and so, as a Dad would do, I said, ‘No, I’m going up to do that.’ And so I go up there, and I can’t even recognize her ’cause she’s already got that garb on, and I finally realize that’s Ericka.
“And I said, ‘No, I’m going to intubate. You’re pregnant.’ And she says, ‘No, I’m going to intubate. You’re 62 years old; you’re at prime time to get COVID.’ And we both end up going in just to make sure it was done safely.
“But this hospital has great people working here. I had a respiratory therapist, and I can’t remember Scott’s last name, but he got me all dressed up. I didn’t know the whole procedure. He already had Ericka all dressed up. And I said, ‘Yeah, I had to come up here. I didn’t want her to do it.’ And he said, ‘Hey man, I’ll take care of your little girl. You know I will.’
“Even when we got done — I think it was the first COVID intubation we had done, I’m not sure — but there were people outside the room guiding me on how to take it off, too, because there are a lot of factors that go into protecting yourself that you don’t think about until you get put in that situation.
“It’s so nice that we do have a great team here that works together. I could tell everyone outside that room was heavily rooting or praying for us, or whatever you do. That’s what I like about Southeast.
“And then I look at these pictures, and you see so many great people, and it’s just tremendous.”
Pruemer said the photos “will make you tear up, even if you don’t know them.”
Natalia Vandeven, RN, is a nurse who worked in the ICU and then moved to the COVID-19 recovery area.
“I’m so emotional just thinking about it,” she said. When she knew COVID was here, she took the attitude, “I’m ready, I know I have skills to be used, so take me and let me use them.”
There were not many surgeries being performed when she received a phone call saying, “Hey, we need a critical care nurse.”
“So I said, ‘Okay. Let’s do it,’ She recalled. “I think it meant a couple weeks in the COVID unit. It is terrifying. But Southeast truly prepared us and made sure we had the equipment that we needed. And so, we did what we had to do. We were safe, thankfully, and didn’t experience half the things other parts of the world did.
“The photos Joe captured of us were beautiful and emotional, and we are so very thankful to have them to hang onto forever; to pass onto our children and grandchildren and on down the line.”
Michael Toeniskoetter is a tech in the O.R. who has suffered from asthma all his life. When he learned of the COVID-19 virus coming here, “it was pretty terrifying,” he said. “I am one of the ones at risk for this.”
And yet, he felt safe, thanks to being surrounded by professionals. “If you look at these photos, if you look in the eyes, you can tell every one of these people here is here to help. We’re here on the frontlines doing what we do best. I’m just happy being a small part of it. It was very humbling to a be a part of this [Hero] project.”
“It’s definitely a different time in medicine,” added Dr. Katie Wahlig, an anesthesiologist. “Things are changing and will forever be changed. “It’s a scary, evolving situation.
“It’s definitely scary, especially for anesthesiology providers. They are the ones putting the breathing tubes in the patients when they can’t sustain their breathing anymore. And that is one of the most dangerous times to be in the patient’s room.”
Wahlig thanked Craig for the Hero Project. “I haven’t seen anything anywhere in the world that has captured the raw emotion that you have done. It’s just incredible, everything that we’re feeling, thinking, experiencing every day is what these photos show. It’s not knowing if you’re bringing this home to your loved ones and your babies. … I just can’t thank you enough.”
Janice Quade, RN, director of Perioperative Services, gave approval for the Hero Project at the hospital. She thanked Craig for the photographs, saying she would treasure hers as a reminder of an unprecedented moment in history.
“COVID-19 brought a level of uncertainty that I and many others have never experienced before,” Quade said. “Our focus on patient safety is always paramount; however, amid the crisis, I also worried about my staff. My portrait captured what I was feeling, trying to bottle up inside and hide.”
The Soulmarks Hero Project highlights and honors those called to service during the pandemic. It was started by Claudette Hency, RN, a nurse at SoutheastHEALTH, in her garage, before photo sessions were approved at the hospital. In addition to her nursing career, Hency volunteers for the Soulmarks Foundation, and the Hero project is “near and dear to her heart,” said Craig.
Jason Scherer, president of the council of the Soulmarks Foundation, said the foundation is funded by the Joe Craig Luxury Group and other businesses and individuals. A generous donation from Charles Montgomery helped pay for this project at Southeast Hospital, which is the first of several such Hero Projects at hospitals. The next one is planned for a hospital in Nashville. Future projects include a hospital in Florida and one in France. “You all are going to be the biggest” Scherer told the people from Southeast Hospital.
People from all different positions in the hospital were invited to be photographed, from those who sit at the registration desk to surgeons, from volunteers and cafeteria workers to nurses and technicians.
Those photographed sent their appreciation and feelings to Craig ahead of the unveiling:
“For those of you that know me, I love creativity. When an individual envelops their creativity to pay homage to those of us who face “the monster” of COVID-19 on the front lines, they capture an emotion words can’t describe. I felt uncertainty to my core; and I know many others share/shared this panic right along with me. Thank you Soulmarks Foundation for honoring me and many others as pandemic heroes … this tribute and image is something I will treasure forever. God bless you and your team” — Janice Quade.
“Thank you again for giving us this chance, and honoring us, instead of fearing us. It means more to us than you will ever know” — Jackie Twidwell.
“You will not remember me or my name, that is OK. I was there to hold your hand to make you comfortable, ease your pain and fear. I may not see myself as a hero; this is my job and I am happy to do it” — Brandy Matlock.
“They say the hands are a mirror to the soul. Joe Craig has photographed my hands several times in my life — in the many school dances and cheerleading pictures with lifelong friends, my senior pictures, my wedding day when my parents gave my hands in marriage to my best friend, and now in this tribute to the heroes, during this scary and crazy time in my 32-year career at SoutheastHealth. I do not see myself as a hero, but as a friend, daughter, wife, sibling, coworker and labor and delivery nurse that will always offer her hands to applaud, squeeze, high five and to hold whenever those true heroes in my life need it. Thank you Joe Craig for the Soulmarks that you have captured in my life.” — Julie Schott
“I don’t consider myself on the frontlines of anything, but I’m still there.
“I don’t think of myself as a hero either, but I’m still there.
“I was there for your dad when he desperately needed that cervical spine fusion.
“I was there for your grandma when she couldn’t wait any longer on that vertebral augmentation for her compression fracture.
“I was there for your uncle when he had to have that emergent brain surgery.
“I was there … I am still there … For you.” — Tina Ford
Since 1972, Craig has established himself as an internationally acclaimed photographer. He has spent 40 years perfecting his life’s work, an artistic and soulful approach to portraiture called Soul-marks, and teaching this philosophy to others.
In addition to the Joe Craig Luxury Group (JCLG), a line of portrait studios exclusively available on luxury cruise lines and at destination resorts, he also dedicates time to the Soulmarks Foundation, which works to gift portrait sessions to those who could not otherwise have access to experience the healing power of photography.
The Soulmarks Foundation gift at SoutheastHEALTH is given in memory of Elmer Seyer and Carolyn Corlew.