Heidi Cutter, RN; Jeffrey B. Teitler, MFA, photographer

Disclosures

September 08, 2020

Editor's note: In an effort to preserve the experiences of healthcare workers on the front lines, Medscape developed a set of artistic portraits of hospital practitioners who worked (and are working) through this pandemic. These images are accompanied by a short essay written by the participants that gives us a glimpse of their experience. It is a privilege to capture these stories, and we do so with the hope that those who risked their health, lives, and families in the service of others are not forgotten.

Heidi Cutter, RN: In Her Own Words

It was difficult to breathe as I walked into that charred, burnt house.

And the smell — I'll never forget.

As an oncology nurse, I walk alongside cancer patients as they fight, struggle, triumph over, and sometimes succumb to their disease. I'm usually pretty good at facing tragedy, but COVID-19 brought with it a new reality.

My days were spent with patients and families who were often deeply struggling and hurting. But at night, it was my turn to cry.

My son had tested positive for coronavirus. He works in the prison system and was assigned to guard COVID-positive inmates. Though I was not surprised at his test result, the pandemic hit home too early. Fortunately, his case was mild.

Not long before, we had essentially lost my mother-in-law. She was a vibrant woman and wife of 60 years who unexpectedly had a massive stroke. Because of the pandemic, we could not visit her. She couldn't walk or speak, so our one-sided phone calls often ended in frustration and sobbing.

One night, the phone rang. It was midnight, so I knew it wasn't good. My son's girlfriend was crying, saying that their house is on fire. My husband and I threw on some clothes and rushed to go see them.

Forty minutes later, we pulled up to the house — flashing lights and chaos everywhere. Firetrucks lined the street; firefighters were inside and outside the house.

I saw my son and his girlfriend, both barefoot, and my heart sank. We ran up and hugged them, holding on tight. Then we stood together and watched the devastation unfold.

I can't help but think about what would have happened if they hadn't heard that chirping sound from the smoke detector, if they hadn't woken up just in time to trudge through the thick smoke to get out — how horrifyingly different things would have been.

Life can be forever altered in a matter of seconds. It's fleeting, unpredictable, and fragile.

In the middle of the most complex public health crisis in my lifetime, it was my son's $25 fire alarm and a recently changed $2 battery that saved their lives. It saved our family.

Because of my work, cherishing life is something I don't need to be reminded of. Still, I've never been so thankful for my family and friends as I am today.

Jeffrey B. Teitler is a professor of filmmaking at Central Connecticut State University and the director of Envision Films. His scripted and nonscripted works have been presented nationwide, including at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations, and he has been an official selection and/or winner at a number of film festivals.

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