A Time of Awakening:
Walking With Grace
A photo essay of some of the individuals who are making a difference
By Katy Tartakoff

Editor’s Note: Photographer Katy Tartakoff has spent years artfully capturing the essence of the human spirit through her lens. Recent events led her on a path that has been at times emotional, and more often rewarding. Here in her words are the story behind these enduring and beautiful photographs. These photographs and stories, along with many more, will be published in a book entitled A Time of Awakening: Walking With Grace.

The followng photos and stories are copyrighted by Photographer Katy Tartakoff. All rights reserved. Text and photos may not be copied or used in any fashion without direct permission from the photographer.

This is the beginning of a project I created to honor the lives of all those individuals who matter … who make a difference. The people working through these challenging times, who make our lives better, regardless of the risks they face. Included in A Time of Awakening: Walking With Grace will be the faces of Black Lives Matter, immigrants, people of color and Native Americans. They’ll be the folks who clean buildings, stock grocery store shelves, the waste management folks, the people making food and delivering door to door, the migrant workers who make it possible for us to eat healthy fresh food … the medical professionals and first responders … the moms and dads who help their children finish school online … the list goes on.

Many of the “Essential” workers are people we never see or hear from. They are the quiet heroes and sheroes.

A Time of Awakening: Walking With Grace is a photographic/journalistic documentation during this unprecedented time in our world as we live into wellness or live into death with the Covid-19 Virus. It is an opportunity for these amazing people to be seen and have their voices heard.

Sincere gratitude to the people shown here for their willingness to participate and share their stories with us.

Paramedic: 38, Denver
Paramedic: 38, Denver portrait

“It has been super hard for me to share a personal story because the nature of paramedicine is not self-promoting. When a person calls 911, they aren’t calling for me, the dad, the Denver native, the son, the brother. They’re calling for a professional to help with their emergency, to give them answers and help them regain control of whatever situation that is out of control. 

With Covid, things are a little different, I would be devastated if I inadvertently brought anything home to my teenage son. For the first month of the lockdown, he lived with my mom while I worked my regular shifts on the street. We didn’t know anything yet and I wanted to keep him as safe as possible. We did homework together over FaceTime and played games online like Minecraft. We missed each other tons but felt it was our only choice. We are back together now and I still worry that if something happens to me, what would happen to him? I am his sole provider. My son is aware of Covid-19, we talk about everything including the risks of infection, what it would look like, how treatment helps people and that there is a small but real risk it could be very serious. As a fulltime single dad we also had to have the talk about if something happens to me, my family would step in, we’re lucky to be surrounded by a loving supportive community.”

Covid has also changed how we care for people; the mask is impersonal and isolating, making it harder to show empathy and make a connection. Normally we have lots we can do for respiratory patients; they’re usually my favorite to care for because we can help turn them around quickly with breathing treatments, oxygen, medicines specific to different respiratory conditions, and we can even CPAP to assist breathing or use a hand-operated manual ventilator to breathe for people who can’t breathe enough on their own, or even go as far as placing a breathing tube if all of that is ineffective. But some of our interventions are now putting us at risk and we have to be careful how we treat people because of the risk of transmission of Covid. CPR on a person with Covid-19 can aerosolize the virus in the air for up to an hour — giving a normal nebulizer to a Covid patient leaves a droplet mist in the air of a droplet-transmitted disease; lots of our treatments, including just giving oxygen all increase potential for transmission.

Now that we are accustomed to putting on the PPE, recognizing the signs of potential infection, and caring for numerous patients with Covid-19, the initial anxiety is gone and we are finding solace in being able to help people. I love running calls and that initial anxiety is working itself out by being aware and skilled at what we do. We adapt to every new thing we encounter, it’s the nature of emergency work. There’s always something scary or intense. We have the privilege of caring for everyone in every situation from birth to death and everything in between, and we’re here for all of it.

We’re on the front line of social issues as well, we see first-hand our neighbors suffering from poverty and addiction and a broken system that keeps people down more than it helps them up. We see it all the time where people just write off people in need. I think about how easy it is to judge people experiencing homelessness or mental illness or addiction. I don’t feel it’s right. These people are our neighbors. We help however we can. We want to be there to serve everyone. We are a safe haven and people count on us for that.

Tyrone: UPS Driver: 16 years of service
Tyrone: UPS Driver: 16 years of service portrait

For 16 years I’ve been working doing deliveries. I love being out on my own with this work getting to know my customers and people in the neighborhood.

With Covid-19, it’s been like Christmas for three months without enough personnel to load the trucks or drive the trucks. At Christmas we usually have an assistant to help us to load and unload the deliveries. Since the virus, we are on our own. Everyone is ordering everything online. I’ve noticed older people have now gotten used to ordering things online as well, so we are delivering to a larger population than ever. I think this trend will continue even after Covid.

Each day I go into hospitals bringing the supplies they need to do their jobs. If there is something I would like to see from the public, it is the same respect and gratitude the medical professionals and first responders get every day. We’re out risking our lives day to day making sure people are getting what they’ve ordered and doing the best we can. We’re working longer hours and more days than usual. That is time away from our families.

I do have people who say I am appreciated. On occasion they give me tips. I do my best to stay positive and keep smiling.

My wife takes care of our two- and three-year-old grandchildren and when I get home, I have to make sure I don’t contaminate my grandchildren or my wife. It troubles me at times. I want to make sure I’m staying safe and keeping them safe. My wife knows I have to work and just says, be safe and be careful. I do the best I can every single day. 

Grace: Paramedic
Grace: Paramedic portrait

For over four years, I’ve worn a bracelet with the phrase ‘Be Brave’ inscribed on it. I don’t really know where I got it, or why I started wearing it in the first place. Wear and tear has led me to replace it a few times, but every day, it’s been with me.

The people in this profession are special, we’re never bored, and it’s extremely rewarding. I truly look forward to going to work every day, and I’ve formed friendships that will last a lifetime. I honestly haven’t felt much fear in this job. Stressed, tired, frustrated and underappreciated are things I feel more often than fear. 

But since this pandemic started, I feel fear a lot. 

I felt fear in the first few weeks when there was still so much we didn’t know about the virus. 

I felt fear when I realized that we may not have enough masks to go around. 

I felt fear when my parents told me they went to the grocery store.  

I’m afraid when I have to be the only person going into a patient’s house; normally it’s me, my partner, and at least three firefighters. I know that if this person is really sick, I can turn around and someone will hand me a stethoscope. My partner will already be getting vitals, two firefighters have a plan to get our patient out of the house, and the other is calling out medications and allergies from the other room. If something goes wrong, these people have my back and I have theirs. But since the virus, we try to limit the number of people ‘exposed.’ So now I get to put on a mask and gloves and go in by myself, with a fraction of the tools I would normally bring, and try to do my job alone. Sure, my crew is only a radio call away, but have you ever tried to hold up a patient who just had a seizure, console their family, and make sure the ‘scene is safe’ all by yourself? It’s scary. 

And it’s not just running the calls that’s scary. It’s afterward. It’s wondering if you cleaned every surface in the ambulance. It’s hoping that you and your partner washed your hands enough times, and took your mask off the right way. It’s going home at the end of your shift and staying away from your loved ones so you don’t expose them unknowingly. 

We’re afraid, but we’re still putting on our boots and answering the call every time. And when this is all over, and the light is shining once again, we will be here. Still a little bit afraid, a little more rough around the edges, but as always: Brave. 

Anna: Emergency Medicine Nurse Practitioner
Anna: Emergency Medicine Nurse Practitioner portrait

Covid-19 has changed the world. It has changed how we interact. It has changed the practice of medicine. It has changed perspectives. It has changed priorities. But it hasn’t changed the resiliency of the human spirit. It hasn’t changed the need to have faith over fear. It hasn’t changed the need for hope and kindness. 

This is my Covid-19 story. I am an emergency medicine nurse practitioner at Denver Health in Denver, Colorado. My co-workers and I still go to every shift ready to care for people during vulnerable and scary times of their life. We do it because we care. We do it because we want to help people and that was our passion and purpose way before this virus wreaked havoc on our world. We go to our shift unsure of who will come through the front doors or the ambulance bay. 

Since the outbreak of this pandemic, the same question goes through my mind while driving to my shift at the hospital: “Will this be the day I catch it?” I also think and pray that I don’t give it to my husband. I get a headache from wearing my N-95 mask, surgical cap, and goggles for a full 12-hour shift. 

From the prayers, texts, emails, social media posts, and calls I know I am not alone in this. My neighbors and friends have been so generous to dig through their garages to find extra N-95 masks, gloves, and other PPE to donate. The construction company my father works for donated respirators, masks, face shields, and other PPE to help protect us. Family and friends have made homemade masks and surgical caps and I can see the love in every stitch. Businesses and families have also donated snacks, meals, coffee and notes of encouragement. 

I may be on the front lines as a healthcare provider, but I am also a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, a dog mom, and a neighbor. I know that this is just the season we are all in right now: a season to slow down and appreciate the blessings in life.

Kimi: Pediatric ED
Kimi: Pediatric ED portrait

I find that it is a frustrating thing to get ready for work and head into the hospital. There are fewer sick people currently, but more people who are not needing to be in the ER. The frustration of having to care for people who do not need to be in the ER and who are risking their health and the health of everyone they might encounter in daily life is baffling to me. Those who work in the ER are doing everything possible to not bring Covid home or to spread it, and people are coming in for things that do not need to be seen in the ER like acne, a squished finger, a blister, etc.

I coped with the spread by just knowing that I would probably get Covid. But it’s my job to go in, and take care of people who need help, and keep people safe. But by doing that, I also had to acknowledge that a lot of the things that I took for granted had to be significantly limited. I order my groceries now, so I don’t have to go to the store. I don’t get to see friends or family. And there is a great chance that I will probably get Covid and that’s just the way it is.

My roommate and I have talked a lot about [the possibility of exposure], as she’s a pilot and is also exposed to the world. I try to stay in my spaces and be careful to wash hands before being in the kitchen or shared areas. I do laundry very frequently and wear scrubs from the hospital frequently to try and limit the amount of virus I may be bringing home. She does similar things and we clean the common areas often.

There has been an outpouring of cards and food. I think the interest in creating this project and some tributes to those on the front lines is the most special.

There have been more thanks given for our efforts from our leadership staff. But I am absolutely baffled by the decisions of hospital management to take bonuses right now. I realize it was set from the 2019 year, but to still accept those bonuses during this time, when there is absolutely no reason for the bonuses for those people to survive, it absolutely baffles me. Staff in the hospital are expected to take PTO, or to take leave without pay, to go home early, so that “the hospital can save money”. But our top executives who all make more than $250,000/year, are accepting bonuses of $50k to more than $230K.

The silver lining: I think everyone is much more aware of what they have and of what everyone is doing to take care of each other. More people are saying thank you to those in the grocery stores, to cops, to hospital workers, and everyone is just being kind again.

Do I feel supported in my work environment, my home, by friends and family? Yes, but also no. I don’t think they understand. A lot of my good friends have been venting about how annoying it is to have to stay home and that it’s frustrating to just work from home and drink wine all day. I wish I had that luxury and was able to stay home and not risk getting sick or getting those I care about sick. My family has done a few small gatherings very spaced out and that was nice, but also frustrating because they aren’t listening to science or the actual state of the hospital or anything like that, they’re just reading the news and it feels like they’re overreacting a bit.

The best thing about my work now is my wonderful coworkers. It is wonderful to work in a place where we are working as a team and everyone is on the same page. Our dirty humor is still there, our hugs and tough moments are still there, and it’s a nice haven to be in where we all understand what’s going on and we all understand the stakes we’re working with. The most challenging thing is the breadth of patients we are caring for. We have our “regulars” who are frequently intoxicated and mean to us, and we have dying elderly and sick children. We have people coming to the ER in a pandemic, for “twitches” secondary to meth use, and acne. Finding any kind of compassion for the people who do not realistically need to be in the ER and do not have an emergent medical condition amongst the angst and management of truly sick patients is difficult to say the least.

I am not continuing to work in this job because I am supporting my family or because I want to make a difference. I am continuing to work because this is my job. I signed up to be exposed to anything that came into the ER. We have classes and trainings to deal with exposures to chemicals, to nuclear remnants, to biological weapons, to MRSA, to c-diff, to meningitis, to ebola, to any big bad thing that might come in through our doors. Is it fun to have to manage any of those things or to think about working in those environments? No. But that’s my job and that’s what I signed up for when I chose to be in the medical field and when I chose to come to Denver Health’s ER. 

Bri: Denver Health Emergency Department
Bri: Denver Health Emergency Department portrait

In such chaotic times as these it is easy to react out of fear. It is easy to slip into the mentality of ‘fend for yourself and your pack.’ What I have experienced, however, is it is also easy to react out of kindness.

Covid has made me realize how generous and giving some are. Small businesses that are struggling have donated countless amounts of meals, even though they have fallen on hard times too. Others have donated self-care items, mental health help, monetary relief, flowers, etc. It has been a challenge, but it also has been eye-opening.

The city of Denver and the team in the ER have rallied behind our hospital and I am proud to say I am part of the Denver Health emergency department.