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ER doctor bringing story of pandemic hospital care and mental health to Sidney

Dr. Heather Patterson will speak about her photo book Shadows and Light: A Physician’s Lens on COVID

A Calgary ER doctor is bringing her visual chronicle of pandemic hospital life to Sidney this month, with the presentation and book signing helping support her peers with the Saanich Peninsula Hospital and Healthcare Foundation.

Over the pandemic, Dr. Heather Patterson embarked on a project photographing the intimate realities of hospital care during one of the most challenging times for the profession in recent memory.

After multiple years of work and thousands of photos, the result is the photo book Shadows and Light: A Physician’s Lens on COVID, which not only pulls back the curtain, but also explores the topic of mental health among medical professionals that often goes undiscussed.

“The project really came from being in a place where I was burned out – a place I never expected myself to be. I have always been quite enthusiastic about my career,” said Patterson. “Even before the pandemic hit Calgary, I was quite exhausted, and in discussion with my husband who is also an (ER) doc, we talked about different ways I could rekindle that passion and work through the challenges of being burnt out.”

A photographer on her own time, Patterson decided to combine her passions in what was originally envisioned as being a small photo project which would not be seen beyond her local medical community.

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After months of discussions and planning with hospital leadership to flesh out the ethical and legal implications of the project, she finally started taking photos just as the second wave of the pandemic hit Alberta. Rather than use it as a reason to cancel the project, the leadership team instead encouraged her to expand the project to the entire hospital system, rather than just one hospital.

“It was a learning experience as a lifestyle photographer used to shooting families and friends … so coming to the hospital, I think I am well-integrated into the environment, but the challenges as a photographer were learning to shoot through my own (personal protective equipment) and only really being able to capture people’s eyes through their PPE.”

But beyond the photography, Patterson also learned more about her profession than she expected.

“Unless you are in positions of leadership … I don’t think we have the opportunity or the awareness when we are working in the hospital to be able to appreciate how incredible these people are, in all areas of the hospital. The more I had the opportunity to explore the different departments, the more I heard tales of sacrifice and excellence and innovation all designed to provide the best possible care for people in our community. It was so inspiring.”

As the project evolved into the final photo book, Patterson said she decided if she was going to be trusted to tell the intimate stories of patients and colleagues, she would have to become vulnerable herself and tell her own story, and hopefully help change the culture within the medical profession around talking about mental health.

“Prior to the pandemic, burnout was considered a personal failure of epic proportions,” she said. “So in the book I am open about what it looked like and what it felt like to be an ER physician through the pandemic, and to talk about how this project has changed who I am and how I practice medicine.”

Patterson will be at Star Cinema in Sidney on April 21 from 2 to 4 p.m. to sign copies of her book, talk about some of the stories she heard and captured, and to open up discussion in the community. Books will be available for purchase, and $10 donations will be accepted at the door.

Registration is required, and can be filled out online at

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Justin Samanski-Langille

About the Author: Justin Samanski-Langille

I moved coast-to-coast to discover and share the stories of the West Shore, joining Black Press in 2021 after four years as a reporter in New Brunswick.
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