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These nurses hold their patients’ hands and erect a critical bridge to loved ones now heartbreakingly out of reach

ICU nurses at Boston Medical Center collect images from home to buoy their coronavirus patients

Boston Medical Center nurses Katlyn Campbell (left) and Casey Hertello displayed photos of family members they printed for their patients who cannot have visitors.
Boston Medical Center nurses Katlyn Campbell (left) and Casey Hertello displayed photos of family members they printed for their patients who cannot have visitors.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

If it seems as if they are soldiers whose friendship has been forged in a foxhole — danger exploding all around them, death seemingly around each corner — it’s because that’s precisely how it feels.

Casey Hertello and Katlyn Campbell are both thirtysomething nurses at Boston Medical Center. They were hired together. They went through orientation together. As their careers have blossomed, they have been each other’s shadow.

They have had one another’s back. Friends. Colleagues. Skilled medical professionals who have leaned on each other and are now at work on the front lines of a disaster few of us saw coming.

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“We’re a package deal,’’ Hertello said the other day as we sat in a BMC conference room, Campbell at her side.

Both women wore blue scrubs — fully masked and ready for another shift. Yes, a package deal.

And, now, they’ve become something else.

For the COVID-19 patients they care for each day, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. inside the intensive care unit at BMC, they have become essential lifelines to beloved grandfathers, to mothers and fathers worshipped by worried children.

They have seen the desperation in family members’ eyes. They have heard the voices breaking with emotion. They have kids of their own, and the fear they see is palpable. And it’s close.

So amid the widening pandemic, they wondered how to bridge that terrifying gap between their patients in their beds and their frightened families now so sadly out of reach.

“We talked about some kind of online journal where we could update families throughout the day,’’ Campbell told me last week in the middle of another shift at BMC. “And then I went home and I was like: What if we do pictures? I’m a picture person. I love them.

“So I made a Facebook post out there and I said: ‘Does anyone have a printer? Or photo paper? We want to print pictures for patients of their families who can’t be here.’’

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And then the BMC nurses waited for the response.

It was immediate. It was strong. And it has helped bring a touch of home into an ICU that has never been more desperate for it.

They are images — hundreds of them — now taped up at the bedsides of pandemic patients struggling for life. They are images of blessed normalcy. Life’s little things that now seem so precious.

A little kid with a football tucked under his arm, a helmet on the turf at his feet. The family dog mugging for the camera. Cousins and grandparents. Best friends and brothers. Bridesmaids and classmates. All of them taped up at a bedside. Emblems of hope.

“For them to take the time to do this means so much for my family,’’ said Tina Cunningham, whose sister, Christine McDonough, is one of the nurses’ patients. “These nurses have been absolutely amazing to her. And to us. Right now, they are her family.’’

Jane Crump agrees. Her husband, Norman Crump, is an artist who will turn 70 next month. They live in South Boston. Both started feeling sick in late March. Jane got better. Norman didn’t.

She remembers the drive from Southie to BMC. “You look at the person in the car and you think, ‘Oh, my God! I may never see this person again,' " she said.

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When the nurses called and asked her to send some photos of her husband, she grabbed those precious images of a well-lived life. Their daughter with their grandson. Happy memories of family time together.

“They said they brought the pictures into his room and he just held them in his hand and he gazed at every single one of them,” Crump told me. “Kind of drinking it in, you know?''

Crump knows what those photos mean to her husband. And what those nurses mean to her.

“They’re so kind,’’ she said. “We can’t be there. I can’t touch my husband. I can’t whisper in his ear and encourage him. But these people are taking the place of our family. They have a calling.

“It overwhelms me just talking about it. It’s incredible.’’

It’s also a simple act of kindness that Hertello’s and Campbell’s patients will never forget. And never be able to fully repay.

But, actually, the nurses have been paid in full. It’s right there in front of them each day at BMC, where they have erected family lifelines that will never be forgotten.

They’re monitoring ventilator settings. They are inserting breathing tubes. They’re holding hands. They’re praying for deliverance.

And then it’s time to go home to families who love them, who want them to be safe — protected from a disease most of us are running way from. Furiously.

“My husband has definitely been anxious about it,’’ Hertello told me from behind her mask. “He’s never been an anxious person. This has definitely put some stress on him. He’s been staying home with the kids.''

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Her mother, a nurse with the Boston Public Schools, was not thrilled to learn that her daughter had raised her hand for extra shifts.

Campbell nodded slowly as her colleague narrated what has become their new daily regimen, both at work and at home.

“We’re in a 750-foot condo, and my husband is ready to bust out the doors,’’ she told me. “People are definitely checking in more frequently, making sure we’re OK.’’

But, of course, it’s not OK.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that 9,000 health care workers have tested positive for the virus.

So the nurses lean on each other. And into their work. They’re drawing blood. They’re checking blood gases. They’re monitoring oxygen levels.

And —amid all of that — they’re preserving precious touchstones of home. Photos of birthday cakes and pretty prom dresses. Photos of backyard cookouts and leisurely autumn strolls beneath trees whose leaves are an impossible kaleidoscope of color.

They are nurses. They are friends. And they are human.

“I think I’ve cried more in this pandemic than I have in my 31 years of living,’’ Campbell said. “Everyone on our unit is just go good about checking in: ‘What help do you need? How are you doing?' ''

They can feel the community’s support. It’s there in the lunches delivered to them by strangers as tokens of appreciation. It’s there when an old patient, via Venmo, buys them a cup of coffee.

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All of it a nod to nurses who are now, suddenly, family.

“You always wonder about certain people,’’ Campbell said. “It would be amazing to follow up with them and their families who we’ve been talking with on the phone. I would love that.

“And I feel like that for a lot of these people — these patients — we’re going to wonder: How are they? Do they remember us?’’

Remember? Remember Casey Hertello and Katlyn Campbell?

How could anyone forget?


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.