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AP team finds exhausted chaplains comforting families, COVID patients in their final moments

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Eugene Garcia, just two weeks into his job as the AP’s newest full-time video journalist, based in Los Angeles, came forward with an idea as he pored over all of the COVOD-19 stories we have done during the past year. We’d covered doctors and nurses, funeral homes and morgues, nursing homes, first responders, teachers, students and schools. What about hospital chaplains, he pondered.

Simultaneously, Los Angeles-based photographer Jae Hong also had been considering the idea, unbeknownst to Garcia, launching the two extraordinary visual journalists on their first story together: a deeply touching and heartbreaking journey into the daily lives of the often unsung and unseen heroes of the pandemic — the clergy.

Garcia and Hong have a knack for delving deep into the human side of the stories they cover. That fly-on-the-wall ability to observe helped them capture emotional moments as hospital chaplains at one Southern California medical center worked to give solace to people dying from COVID-19 and their distraught families.

The pair approached the story with sensitivity and care,maintaining distance to give the families,patients and chaplains space in these tragic moments but close enough to bring the story to life even as their subjects drew their last breaths. The package shed light on the stories of exhausted and emotionally-drained chaplains working in situations they had never experienced before. As one put it, “We weren’t trained for this.”

Accompanied by a heartfelt text story written by John Rogers, the complete package was a visually driven,dramatic work of journalism that brought the audience into hospital rooms as dying patients said goodbye to their mothers,fathers,sisters and brothers with their faces and voices on the screen of an iPad.

“Yo,Ma,” a man says to his mother before breaking down in tears.

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Chaplain Kevin Deegan, left, and registered nurse Michelle Stephens comfort each other in a COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles, Jan. 9, 2021. “He is my friend. He is a trusted co-worker. He is my partner in crime. We absolutely have been through a lot together,” said the nurse. – AP Photo / Jae C. Hong

In a true all-formats effort,the components — video,photos and text — complemented each other to create a powerful narrative. The story, photos and consumer ready video edit were used by websites across the U.S.,including The Washington Post,ABC and Yahoo,while the longer form newsroom video was downloaded by customers around the globe.

For an arresting package that explores the compassionate yet crushing work of front-line chaplains,Garcia, Hong and Rogers earn this week’s Best of the States award.

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