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A Privilege Unlike Anything Else: Portraits of Nurses


In 2008 my first wife, Jennifer, was diagnosed with breast cancer. We had been married for five months and Jen passed less than four years later at the age of 40.

Throughout Jen’s treatment we spent a considerable amount of time in hospitals. Extended stays of 12-15 days were not uncommon, and hospitals came to feel like our second home. Despite the considerable effort made by hospital staff and administration to create a peaceful environment and to preemptively meet the needs of every patient, feelings of elevated stress, fear and anxiety were constant, and the emotional and physical toll was extraordinary.

Thankfully, there was another constant: our nurses. We saw them more than anyone else, including our families, and we formed a special bond, an “Us vs. Cancer” mentality. Whether they were relentlessly following up with doctors on our behalf, tracking down extra pillows and warm blankets or just lending an ear, our nurses became our lifeline.

On the days when we had an entire room to ourselves, the nurses would bring in their nail kits and our room would transform into a salon, where Jen could almost feel like she wasn’t a cancer patient stuck in a hospital. Jen’s favorite bakery was located along the route of one nurse’s walk to work and she would often pick up a surprise treat for Jen. On nights when I slept at the hospital, I always awoke with an extra blanket covering me.

Day after day, our nurses were the glue that held everything together.

During the current coronavirus pandemic, the role of nurses has taken on an even greater importance. By putting themselves at risk every time they go to work, nurses exhibit courage, empathy and resilience. Their commitment to care for the sick and suffering is a testament to the strength of their character.

A Privilege Unlike Anything Else is my attempt to say thank you to all of the nurses who make this world a better place. May is National Nurses Month and throughout the month portraits of nurses will be exhibited in places of prominence at the main campus of University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, The MetroHealth System, and The Cleveland Clinic. Alongside each portrait will be the sitter’s response to the question “Why did you become a nurse?”

Before I made the first portrait in this series, I knew this would be an emotional project for me. How could it not be? Over the course of four weeks, I had the privilege of meeting and spending time with 30 local nurses. I listened as each of them shared their experiences and beliefs, their challenges and hopes.

After a year of struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic and social and political upheaval, these conversations were a gift and a reminder. They renewed me and gave me faith in the kindness and good that lies within each of us.

What stood out to me most about each nurse I met was the genuine lack of ego they all shared. Don’t get me wrong, these are confident and extremely capable people, but when it comes down to it, the work they do isn’t about them. It’s about the people they help, and the privilege they feel in caring for and supporting others during some of life’s darkest moments. It’s about the big picture, and it’s a lesson I am so grateful to have received.

Akeya Jones. “I like making a difference in people’s lives and I wanted a career that!s meaningful and challenging. The patients give me that drive, that fire to keep coming back, and nursing is my passion. To impact someones life for the better is more than what anyone can ask for.”
Clare Roche. “I became a nurse because I wanted something more out of my life, some way to really help other people. I was trying to figure out what it was that I could do with my life when my mom was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. As I watched the nurses help my mom, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I spent a lot of time caring for my mom and it was heartbreaking, but I am a better nurse because of the time I was with her. She makes me better every day I walk into the hospital.”
Quiana Simmons. “I became a nurse because I love to care for people. Being that person that a patient can rely on and to make their day brighter is why I am a nurse. Having the strength for someone that nobody else can give them at that moment makes Nursing one of the most special careers you could ever have. I get to see a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life and knowing that I can do one thing for that person, and learn one thing from that person, makes nursing that much more special.”
Nora Barnes.” I’ve always had a desire to nurture. From an early age I just wanted to make sure everyone I was around was comfortable. As I grew into my profession, I loved the fact that I had a passion to be part of the healing process and not only taking care of the patient, but the family as well. I just love taking care of people.”
Michael Wallace. “I worked as a paramedic for many years and I always appreciated the sense of camaraderie I felt when I was in an emergency room – it felt like a team. Everyone was helping each other and that’s when I fell in love with nursing. One of the biggest things for me is not only helping people but also teaching them how to take care of themselves and to better their life.”
Teresea Kresila. “In high school I was working on an Oncology Unit and I knew that these were the patients I wanted to take care of. I wanted to share my strength with them and to be there for the good times and bad. My patients are on a difficult journey and I want to help make their life a little bit easier during a traumatic time in their life. I want to help them feel like they are not alone.”
Erin D. Ashley. “I became a nurse to help make a difference in people’s lives. I’m not sure there is any other profession where you can feel a sense of pride and happiness just from a thank you, because you have helped change someone’s life while simply doing your job.”
Kayla Kish. “I became a nurse because of my grandma. From a young age, I would go to my grandma’s house every weekend and stay the night with her. Although I wasn’t necessarily doing medical related things for her I would be helping her with things she couldn’t do for herself & I loved that feeling of being able to help someone when they can no longer help themselves. After becoming an LPN at a young age I watched my grandma Kish suffer a massive heart attack. I remember my grandma having a handful of very good, compassionate, thoughtful nurses and these nurses went out of their way to ensure my family and grandpa were always well informed, educated and listened to. I wanted to be that nurse and I strive to be that exact nurse.”
Agnes Blazunas. “I became a nurse because I wanted to help others and make a meaningful difference in their lives.”
Stephanie Harper. “I fall in love with being a nurse every day and making a difference in a patient’s life is a remarkable feeling. It can be as simple as answering questions over the phone or as complex as helping them welcome their baby into the world. I am reminded often why I became a nurse but there is nothing more rewarding then falling in love with my job every day.”
Amber Keith. “I decided to become a nurse at a very young age. I recall watching my grandmother put on her white nursing dress and cap to get ready for work every night, and I wanted to be just like her. She was the most caring, loving, and giving woman I had ever met. I am proud to be a nurse and I look forward to teaching others in the future.”
Shatoya McQueen. “Many people can say the exact moment when they chose to become a nurse. I, however, say that nursing chose me. I became a nurse simply because I feel that this is a calling that has been placed on my life. As a nurse we see patients at their most vulnerable times. To be a part of something greater than yourself, to be used as a vessel in order to exude love, care and compassion during someone’s most dark and unguarded times is truly both a blessing and a privilege.”
Megan Sumser. “My whole life, I have been drawn to all things medical and have always had a desire to help others. Nursing became the perfect career choice for me, as it allowed me the opportunity to make a positive impact on people’s lives. I love the challenge of providing physical and emotional care to a patient, as well as providing that person with the tools and education they need to be healthy. Patients and their families come to us in very vulnerable conditions and place their trust in us to help them. I will always be humbled by that trust and will never take it for granted.”
Tyrone Garrett. “My mother, who was also a nurse, was my greatest motivation and influence in choosing nursing as a profession. She once told me her biggest enjoyment was hearing the many stories of the elderly patients she cared for and being a listening ear for them. I enjoy caring for individuals at their most vulnerable moments in life and coaching them to health. My mother passed before getting the chance to see me reach the goal of becoming a registered nurse, but I believe she would be proud that I followed in her footsteps.”
Samantha Hennis. “I decided to become a nurse to help people. When I come to work, I know I’m able to make a difference in a patient’s life. To this day, even after a grueling pandemic, I still feel a dedication to help my critically ill patients.”
Carol Price. “I chose to be a nurse is because my brother became critically ill my Senior year of high school. I spent a lot of time with him when he was hospitalized and saw how the nurses showed compassion and caring toward him. I chose to become a Registered Nurse to return this same compassion and caring to those around me.”

About the author: Angelo Merendino is a portrait and brand narrative photographer based in Cleveland, Ohio. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Merendino’s work on his website and Instagram.