After a long afternoon of shooting I headed down to the PICU to check in on one last family, one I hadn’t met and one I had hoped I would be meeting under better circumstances. You see the PICU…it’s not where you want to be. The halls of UCSF feel like home to me…even the smells are nostalgic like my great grandmothers living room…memory filled in their own musty way. But the PICU…I hadn’t yet been there to shoot…I hadn’t been there since Riley had taken her own turns that landed us on that floor. I’m always surprised at what triggers me, at how fast it happens. The sounds of my feet hitting the cold floor echoed and with each blink I was having to remind myself that she was not there. That she made it out of there. That I was here…and I was here to work. Pull. It. Together.

I approached the room and as I’d done so many times before and scrubbed diligently in the ante room before entering. I could hear the commotion of doctors and parents, the giggling of a child I knew had to be a sibling and a few other voices. The medical team was wrapping up and exiting just as I tossed my paper towel into the bin…we passed each other and I felt the look of “hey I know her”…they looked familiar too, I’m sure they had been a part of our team at one point. You see in the PICU it’s constant…it’s a battle that involves more teams of people than you can even imagine. As I stepped in I spotted the Mom, she rose from the bed and we had our introductions…”I’m sorry, I’m not really sure if you’ll be able to get any good shots.” she muttered as she looked around the room. PICU is chaos…the rooms are overflowing with medical equipment and toys. It’s confusing…it does tricks on your brain to see such bright colored plastic playthings among the cords and sterile looking environment. It’s hard to compute. This. Is. Pediatric. Illness. This is Cancer. I assured her that none of that mattered, that I could capture something beautiful…I explained that I had spent more days than I cared to remember in this very room with my own child…I asked her to trust me, to pretend I wasn’t there and know that I understood. She nodded, reassured she went back to the wrestle that is mothering in the PICU.

Kaysan remained on the bed while little Zyan (his not quite yet one year old little brother) was passed from the arms of Mom, Dad, Uncle and Aunt. This little family was amazing. They were a tribe. Zyan was living under the same isolation protocols as Kaysan. When siblings are a part of the equation there are usually two options…they stay home with family or friends unable to have any contact or disconnect from the outside world as well. They chose to hunker down, as a family, day in and day out. While not sick himself the majority of his life had been spent living within hospital walls.

The scene was grim…poor Kaysan was so sick…so weak…comfort was not an option. It’s heartbreaking to witness. His parents took turns holding the bucket as the nausea overcame him, doctors came in and out assessing and reassessing where he was headed, his Aunt read him stories in an effort to distract him from the pain, his Uncle bounced Zyan on his knee. I stayed pressed against the walls, ducking in and out of the cords and medical booms clicking away. Cartoons, crying, beeping…doctors, nurses. It’s worth saying again…PICU is chaos. But let me tell you…it is so beautiful. I have never witnessed love like I do when I am in those rooms. Everyone is all in. Everyone is fighting for each other.

I needed them to see that love. That’s why I do this. When you’re in it…you don’t see it. You don’t see the light and then when it’s over you try and block it all out…you try to forget. I left that room knowing I had captured those brutal moments in a way that they would look back on and cherish. That night while culling through the shots I texted Brittany this image…

I couldn’t wait. It was late but I knew she was awake…there is no sleeping in the PICU. I knew her heart needed to see right then the beauty in her battle. Within minutes she responded…

”Thank you so much. Oh my heart. Thank you very much. I was looking at your website again today and noticed the quote about this being what you thought would break you but look back and see it’s what made you. That has really stayed with me today. As tough as all this is, I think this time here will shape us as a family. We have all become closer and stronger I think.”

She got it. She saw it. This session was over a year ago and I have continued to witness the strength in this family. I am so grateful to have met them, to have had the honor to capture parts of their journey and to now call this beautiful Mama a friend.

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