Q&A with Photographer Carolyn Jones of The American Nurse Project
In The American Nurse Project, photographer Carolyn Jones explores the unique lives of nurses from across the country, capturing extraordinary personal stories through photography and interviews. Jones herself was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy, and she credits an exceptional nurse with her ability to “handle whatever would come my way.”
Her book aims to celebrate the important role of the nurse in the U.S. health care system and sheds light on what it means to be a nurse in our country.
“Facing death, knowing how fragile life truly is, makes you cherish it more,” she said. “Nurses are reminded of this day in and day out. By spending so much time with them, I was struck again by how short and special our time on earth really is. What a gift for me to have the chance to experience that, and be reminded of it again.”
In this Q&A, we learn more about her experience throughout this project and her biggest takeaways.
What were some of the common threads in the stories of the nurses you met?
They’re keeping 12-hour shifts, and then they’re often mothers or fathers and going home and taking care of children, parents who are aging, siblings, or perhaps their own medical issues. It’s funny – I don’t think we think of them as people just like the rest of us, but they absolutely are, which makes them all the more extraordinary.
You yourself went through chemotherapy and have said you wouldn’t have gotten through the experience without a particular nurse who treated you, Joanne Staha. What was it about her that made her so special?
After surgery for breast cancer, I was scheduled to start chemotherapy. I was going to get strong chemo, and I knew that I was going to lose every hair on my body. Somehow that felt like the last insult. I had a port put in my chest since they didn’t want to put this particular chemo in the veins in my arm, and I was scared emotionally and physically. Everything felt so out of my control, and I was starting to feel less and less like myself.
And then Joanne walked in the door, gorgeous, young, and funny. My first day of chemo, she talked to me as though it was just another ordinary day. We spoke of movies, life, and the men she was dating. Surely, if she could be so comfortable and casual with me, then there was nothing to be so scared about. She spoke to me like a friend, and not a sick one. As long as I was in her hands, I felt as though I could handle whatever would come my way, and that eventually it would pass.
I made sure to always get the chemo from Joanne. She never knew how much she did for me; years passed before I realized how often I thought of her. This project gave me the chance to thank her for caring for me.
Did you have any misconceptions about nurses at the onset of this project, and how did those perceptions change over time?
When I started on this project, I thought a lot about whom I was going to meet and what these people would be like. I really thought they were going to be like warriors, I would get them in the middle of their work shift and they would come out disheveled, having just saved a life, and show me the nitty-gritty of nursing.
But what I discovered was that the nurses I met are extremely organized, thoughtful, and they didn’t get disheveled like that and certainly didn’t present themselves that way to me. A lot of the nurses I met have enormous control over what they are doing and said similar things: That they would take a deep breath before walking into a room, remember that this is somebody’s son, daughter, or brother, and that they had to give that person everything that they had.
I would walk out of every interview – during which we would all cry at some point – and feel this deep overwhelming flood of caring that’s unique to this group of people.
In addition to taking incredible photographs of these men and women, you also conducted interviews to learn more about them. Karen Frank, a neonatal intensive nurse from Baltimore, MD, was particularly memorable for me. Was there one story that had a major impact on you? Why?
Elisa Frazer had enormous impact on me. Elisa was a nurse in a hospital for over 20 years, but when her father grew ill and moved into a hospice, she realized that she had a lot to learn.
I think we don’t talk enough about end-of-life, and Elisa was willing to share her experience with her own father with us, and it hit home for me. She spoke of her own struggles, watching him stop being able to digest food, it transformed her, and changed the way she wanted to nurse. Elisa became a hospice nurse after that.
I have thought of her stories and her experience so often that it has shaped how I will approach the death of my own parents, and also how I want to have control, as much as I am able, over my own end-of-life. Meeting Elisa was transformative for me.
What surprised you the most throughout your travels?
Everything was a surprise! Every single place that I went surprised me for one reason or another.
At the Louisiana State Penitentiary, we talked to a hospice nurse there named Tonia Faust. I hadn’t spent much time in a maximum security prison, but being in there and seeing how she’s working with the patients in a hospice program – and how the inmates are caring for one another – was a jaw-dropper!
There was an enormous amount of humanity in this room that was filled with people that were certainly going to live their lives in that maximum-security prison. Every place I went, I was stunned and surprised by the nurses that I met.
What has been the response to this book from the nursing community?
Let me pass on a great comment about the book on Amazon, which sums up how the nurses feel: “You don’t have to be a nurse to enjoy reading this book. Anyone who knows a nurse, has been cared for by a nurse, or is a nurse will love these nurses telling their stories of why they do what they do.
“I laughed and cried and wanted to read more. I am a nurse and have read many books and seen many TV shows and movies portraying nurses in many ways. This book finally captures the nurse as who they are and what they do every day. It’s just an uplifting and validating read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.”
What was your biggest takeaway from this project?
The thing that really struck me as I was working on this project was this sense of being able to accept everybody. That I’m going to go in and care for this person, no matter what they did, or who they are, or how I feel about what they are saying to me – people when they don’t feel well aren’t always at their best, that’s for sure.
And the families can be complicated. It’s the most nonjudgmental group of people I’ve met in my life. They go in and take everything at face value and take care of that patient and never forget that.
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From The American Nurse Photographs and Interviews by Carolyn Jones. Welcome Books. Text & Photographs 2012 © Carolyn Jones. www.welcomebooks.com/americannurse