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From the front line to the homefront, behind the scenes with COVID nurses

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Los Angeles photographer Jae Hong wanted to tell the story of the nurses.

He knew that on the front lines of the battle against coronavirus, nurses spend long hours covered in layers protective equipment, caring for sick and dying patients who are separated from their families.

Then the nurses go home, taking with them the fear of spreading the virus to their own loved ones.

Hong also knew it would be tough to convince a facility to let him in – especially since he wanted to spend several days photographing behind the scenes. He called and emailed about a dozen hospitals before he found one willing to give him the kind of access he needed.

The first day at St. Jude Medical Center, he stayed 13 hours. Then, he and LA reporter Stefanie Dazio spent several hours in the unit getting to know the nurses and asking to meet them at their homes for interviews and photos.

The result was an intimate look at the nurses: their dedication, their fears and sacrifices, and the circumstances that have prevented many from caring for their own children.

‘One of the hardest stories of my career.’

— Reporter Stefanie Dazio

But just as Hong and Dazio thought they were done reporting the story, they learned that the hospital has a program called “Nobody Dies Alone”: Either a nurse or a volunteer stays with patients in their final moments on behalf of family members. With help from the hospital staff, Hong found a family willing to share that experience. As 65-year-old Antonio Navarro neared the end of his life, his wife and son were allowed in the room, along with nurse Michele Younkin and the photographer. Hong’s sensitive, moving images capture the final moments as the family said goodbye, in person and over the phone.

Later, sitting in a park with her 7-month-old baby, Younkin, the nurse, acknowledged the risks she is taking to treat and comfort her patients, emphatically telling her husband: “If I were to die, don’t come. Don’t risk yourselves.”

The story,beautifully rendered in images and text,had more than 25,000 page views on AP News, and social engagement throughout the week. The Los Angeles Times featured the local story online and The Baltimore Sun was among the papers giving the package strong print display.

For a poignant and revealing look at nurses’ commitment to both their patients and their families during the pandemic, Hong and Dazio share this week’s Best of the States award.

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