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These Pictures Show What It's Like To Survive COVID-19

"I’m alive and I kiss the ground literally every morning that I wake up.”

Posted on June 17, 2020, at 1:46 p.m. ET

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Photographer Morgana Wingard is a resident of New York City and experienced firsthand the trajectory of COVID-19 as it spread across the city this past spring, infecting 211,000 and killing over 17,000 people there. After reporting on the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Wingard took note of the striking parallels between these two crises and how the proliferation of information from those who survived Ebola had helped to further curb the spread of the outbreak.

By late April, New York state was the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the US and had reached a peak infection rate of approximately 250,000 documented cases and some 15,000 deaths. At its peak, over 500 COVID-19 deaths were being reported each day with an additional 1,700 daily hospital admissions.

More than 100 days after this lockdown was first enacted, New York state is no longer the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the US — now it has one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 infections in the country. Meanwhile, states that prematurely eased restrictions on business and movements are now experiencing a surge in new cases. In 21 states across the US, COVID-19 cases are on the rise, with some local health authorities noting an increase in their seven-day average as high as 92%.

To help share vital information and warnings about the dangers of the coronavirus, Wingard started the Coronavirus Survivor Diaries project, an ongoing documentary series that shares the faces and stories of those who have survived COVID-19.

Here, Wingard speaks with BuzzFeed News about how this pandemic mirrors and differs from her experience during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, as well as the importance of telling the stories of those who have survived.

Jen from Manhattan

Morgana Wingard

“It’s almost like I’ve gone through a rebirth again. The way I see my future and how I see myself has completely changed. I faced my fears. I was always thinking it stood in my way. I never thought I would be grateful for every single health problem I’ve ever had because I wouldn’t be this person today. I wouldn’t be on this journey if I didn’t get sick with COVID and I wouldn’t change a single thing, no matter how difficult it’s been. I’m alive and I kiss the ground literally every morning that I wake up.”

How did the Coronavirus Survivor Diaries project begin?

Morgana Wingard: As COVID-19 began to spread in New York earlier this year, I was eerily reminded of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2014. I had moved there the year before and spent months helping international humanitarian organizations share their stories of social impact. After most of my friends were evacuated when Ebola spread to the capital in the summer of 2014, I stayed for several more months dominated by a virus that fueled uncertainty, fear, fake news, and phony remedies — much like the environment today.

I learned more than I ever expected about epidemiology, responding to an unprecedented medical emergency, and the critical impact of communication in such a situation. It was one of the hardest times in my life, but I wouldn’t take it back for the world because of what I learned. As an unexpected witness, I observed what didn’t work. But then I discovered what did.

My biggest takeaway was that survivors have a critical role to play in an outbreak. In fact, many of the answers that we seek can be found in the survivors — both in their bodies and in their stories. Then, just as now, people needed to hear from people they know and trust so that humanitarian organizations could work with survivors to pass on vital information to warn, educate, and encourage their communities that Ebola is real, what they can do to protect themselves, and what to do if someone starts getting sick. Just as importantly, they offered hope in a time gripped by fear.

Dr. Odutola from the Bronx

Morgana Wingard

“At the end of March when we had a scarcity of PPE and not enough ventilators, we were running around trying to save lives. There was always a code patient dying somewhere. I wonder how people think this is not serious. I haven’t had time to sit down and look at data, but I know that on a regular day, in the regular flu season, in a month I’m calling just one or two family members saying that people passed. In this pandemic, I call them two to three times a day to tell them that someone passed from coronavirus.”

I’m not a first responder who can provide lifesaving care. I’m not a scientist who can develop a vaccine. I’m not a politician who can make important public health decisions. So, it feels like I’m too far removed to be able to make a real difference. I’m just a storyteller. But I believe there’s power in learning from each other's stories. So, when the COVID-19 outbreak began spreading in my current home, New York City, I started this personal project to document and share these important stories through a series of portraits and first-person accounts of COVID-19 survivors that can spread awareness now and document our shared experience for history.

During the Ebola outbreak we had started a project called Ebola Diaries, so I decided to call this project Coronavirus Survivor Diaries.

In your opinion, how does the coronavirus pandemic in the US differ from the Ebola outbreak in Liberia?

The coronavirus pandemic is different from the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa because everyone is experiencing it together. The Ebola outbreak was isolated to three countries on one continent. This virus has spread to six continents and almost no country is untouched. The beautiful thing about that is that everyone is going through this together so there is a level of mutual understanding as we share this experience and in some ways it brings us together.

Melvin from Manhattan

Morgana Wingard

“We were very careful, but still, there was one day that I felt that I was coughing too much. When I came home I felt that I had a fever. That week when we were sick, hundreds of people were dying daily. One day 799 died. So, that was very scary. We were trying to go to the hospital to get tested to see if we had COVID-19, but they said they had a lot of very severe cases so they said we probably don’t have it and if we go to the hospital we’re going to catch it there.”

How do you meet these survivors?

I find survivors through various means, but mostly on social media. I’ve been amazed at how open people have been with a complete stranger to tell them the most intimate moments of their COVID journeys and allow them to photograph them — albeit at a safe distance with masks.

Why is it important to tell their stories?

It’s important to tell survivor stories for two reasons. First, many of the answers that we seek can be found in the information that survivors have to share: how it’s contracted, how it spreads, what it does to the body, what helped them heal, how they coped, etc. Second, survivors can warn, educate, and encourage their communities by telling them facts about their experiences that dispel myths and encourage people to take the disease seriously while at the same time giving them hope that they can get through it.

How has your impression of the coronavirus pandemic changed since beginning work on this project?

We were initially told the virus was a respiratory disease. It’s clear from speaking with many survivors that it attacks much more than just the lungs.

I thought that the United States was better prepared to respond to an outbreak. I’ve been surprised at our response. In some ways, African countries have responded far better than we have. Liberia took the threat of this virus extremely seriously. The roles reversed. They quarantined anyone coming into the country from New York before there were any known cases in Liberia. I’m proud of them. I think we can learn a lot from their example.

Tiffany from Harlem

Morgana Wingard

“I remember being on my bathroom floor crying and praying and saying to God, ‘There is no antidote. There is no remedy. There is no prescription. So, you are going to have to heal me because if something happens to me, what happens to my children? I can’t not survive this. You’re going to have to be the solution.’ For me, it was a matter of me gathering everything that I believed, biblically, being a Christian and holding onto the fact that I believe this to be true.”

Barbara from Manhattan

Morgana Wingard

“A few days before I stopped going into work, I traveled there via the Lex and 53rd subway station. The platform was teeming with people. I could almost feel the germs; like I was in a horror movie. It was terrifying because we were supposed to be social distancing, but there was nowhere to go. My suspicion is that I got it there. But who knows. The minute I had a fever, I knew I had the virus.”

Lucky from the Bronx

Morgana Wingard

“After a week, I was beginning to get shortness of breath so my husband called 911 and they rushed me to Lincoln Hospital, where I was hospitalized because my oxygen was extremely low. I passed out. I woke up praying to my mighty God and never gave up praying. Never did I think I would be fighting for my life. After speaking on the phone with my daughter to let her know I was okay after three weeks apart, her voice kept playing back-to-back in my head saying, 'Mommy, but you are strong and I hope to see you soon. Get better, Mommy, OK.'”

Sandra from New Rochelle, New York

Morgana Wingard

“I know exactly where I caught it. On the weekend of February 29, we went to a friend’s house for a memorial luncheon for a friend’s father-in-law. The following Wednesday I found out that two of the people there had tested positive from exposure the week before to someone in our temple who had caught it. No one was talking about COVID-19 before that. Because I’m from New Rochelle, we were all quarantined at the same time. The whole going into quarantine is nothing I can relate to because I’ve never had to do that. I’ve never had to see the world so down like this. It was very isolating at first. It was actually a horrible feeling."

Dr. Joseph Feuerstein from Fairfield County, Connecticut

Morgana Wingard

“I am proof positive that you can recover and that there is the possibility for a happy ending after COVID-19.” Feuerstein, a board-certified family medicine physician who specializes in integrative medicine, worked as an emergency department and ICU doctor at Stamford Health in Connecticut.

Paul from Long Island, New York

Morgana Wingard

“I work in the main residential building that is part of a hospital in Manhattan. It looks like it’s the hospital, but it’s the apartments that the doctors and nurses live in. I’m the concierge there at the front and have relationships with most of the people since I’ve been there for a long time. The problem was there was no signage on my door that said it was a residential building. So people are constantly coming in thinking it’s the hospital and we have to redirect them. So, there were people coming in who would walk right up to my desk.”

James from Brooklyn, New York City

Morgana Wingard

“I know I got it from my wife being that we’re together most of the time. She came home one day from work and said that everybody in her pharmacy simultaneously lost their sense of smell. Obviously, that was the first indication because, you know, it’s just not one person. It’s everyone. Once she said that to me, I was like, all right, so we’re gonna have to go through the whole process. A couple of days later I got a headache. A couple of days after that, I lost my sense of smell.”

Jillian and Jessica from New York City

Morgana Wingard

“Everyone who is studying abroad in all of Europe goes to Barcelona for Abroadfest every year. We went to that, which is where we think we probably got it. When I came back home I had very, very minor symptoms: a minor sore throat and my body felt achy. Nothing serious at all. I didn't actually think I could have it. Since we knew some people who had it, we decided to get tested to be sure because we figured it's better to know. I got the call first that I was positive and then my sister tested positive as well. We were so lucky that we had such minor symptoms.” —Jillian

Michael from New Jersey

Morgana Wingard

"My kidneys were the main victim of the virus. They said the best option for me was dialysis. They had to inject a tube that connects to a central vein that’s also connected to my heart to be able to clean my blood and do the job that our kidneys are supposed to do every single day to help recover, heal them. Underneath my shirt there is a catheter line right here by my right shoulder and I still have to go through dialysis. It was three times a week. Now it’s been reduced to two times a week."


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