On Gaining Access To A Hospital

A few weeks ago I followed Garrett and his family to the Children’s hospital at Stanford University. Garrett was going in for a procedure that would release his achilles tendons, correcting his ankles, allowing him to walk on his feet again. In order to gain access to the hospital and to follow Garrett through the procedure I had to contact the hospital’s PR department for approval.
    I have been photographing Garrett and his family since early 2007. Over the years I have befriended many people at the hospital, the EB community, who work with Garrett directly and indirectly. Some of these people have included the PR department at Stanford University’s hospital, doctors, nurses, and other staff. I have needed access in the past to follow Garrett through clinic visits, and other procedures. The path leading to hospital access is challenging and at times frustrating but it is there for a reason. Once you meet and gain the trust of the PR department it becomes easier each time. Hospitals don’t want us just walking in with our big cameras shooting away for a number of reasons. More often than not there are going to be other patients who’s privacy needs to be honored. They may not want to be photographed for any number of reasons. Even though I am taking great care to compose each frame to avoid strangers, or let them fallout into a blurred background, they do not know what I am doing. In an already stressful environment, the last thing I want to do is stress anyone further. Another reason is the staff. They are working to help the children through their procedures. They have jobs to do and we do not know the affect the camera might have on them, distracting them, or making them feel nervous during procedures such as setting an I.V. where they must remain focused. Lastly, in an age of lawsuits, no one knows who you are or how you may be using the images.

    You can now see why gaining access to a hospital is so tricky. This is where the PR department comes into play. They will talk with the doctors and all of the staff involved to make sure everyone involved is aware of you and your intent to create images. The day of your appointment a PR representative will meet with you and stay close by acting as damage control to any staff or other patients who are concerned with your presence. This has helped me out in the past with Garrett and helped gain even more access than I ever thought possible. I didn’t think I would ever be able to gain access to Garrett during the procedure in the operating room. And, legally, photographers are not allowed in the operating room without the hospital’s PR there, and, the approval from the doctor. I had all of this due to my long standing friendship with the hospital’s PR department.
    But what happens when your access is denied due to a very minor technicality, your PR rep is on vacation, and there is no one else available to give you that legal access to a procedure that must be documented? You grab your small unintimidating point-and-shoot camera, have a conversation beforehand with your subject and their family regarding your presence at the hospital as a friend of the family who they want there for emotional support, and to take photos for them. This is a loop hole I discovered with the help of a hospital PR friend.

     This allowed me to follow Garrett through most of his procedure day. I hung out, stayed out of the way and created my images. I used a Canon G10. The camera is small as a deck of cards, and has the option of a silent shutter. I have never been happy with the image quality of this camera at high ISOs but there are many little tricks and special apps these days that address the sensor noise, wasn’t much of a problem, allowed me to focus on the moments.
    One of my old mentors, Jim Nachtwey, once told me you will know immediately if someone wants you photographing them or not. As I photographed Garrett being prepared for surgery I could feel the energy the nurses were radiating in my direction. They did not want me there. I don’t think they could understand why I was there creating images of this boy’s visit to the hospital, his pain and suffering. Nor was I given the opportunity to explain. They never asked me to leave, just gave me looks that could burn through steel. At one point I heard a nurse ask another who I was and why I was there, in which the response, “I don’t know, the family just wants him here” was given. After the procedure I was not allowed access to Garrett. One of the nurses who was troubled by my presence denied me access, even though I was a friend of the family. They told me that only two people were allowed back in the same room I had just been in earlier. Garrett’s dad offered to let me go in his place. I could not let him do that. Garrett needed his dad at the moment more than he needed me making images.
    In the end I got my access because of a loophole, and a little creativity. Sometimes that’s just what it takes. I wasn’t about to miss that opportunity to document another chapter in Garrett’s life with EB.

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