cherished portraits

I have tried so many times to start writing this post and have never been able to complete it. I always backspace everything away and stare at a blank page before giving up and walking away. Today, I am going to try to plow through.

Very early on in my friendship with Sarah Nebel, she tested the waters by asking me how I felt about volunteering for a photography program at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. She explained it over email as a program for infants and children who have already passed or have life-threatening illnesses. I remember her being very frank with me and telling me, “It’s not for everyone, but if you’re interested, we could really use another photographer.”

It’s a tough job. More emotionally tough than technically challenging. In the very simplest of terms, the system is simple: the nurse calls a “Pager Angel” (we adore these ladies) who in turn makes the calls to each of us, 4 photographers, to see who is available. It’s rarely a scheduled event; most often the session takes place within a few hours from the original phone call. When I go in, I get as much background information from the Pager Angel before arriving as well as talk to the nurse beforehand. This information can include anything from family dynamics to whether or not the child is living. I brace my emotions and give everything I have to the time I have with the child and family, documenting this moment in time for them. A few days later, the family receives a disc of the images to keep, to print, to put into an album, but, mostly, as a tangible witness of their child.

Each of us have our stories and our memories and never is an experience the same. Because of privacy purposes, we can’t share them with anyone else so we group together; the photographers, the Pager Angels, and the UI volunteer staff in charge of our program.

Back in February, Cherished Portraits was selected as a Corridor Business Journal HealthCare Hero in the Volunteer Award category and honored at the HealthCare Heroes Luncheon in Cedar Rapids. Laura accepted the award on behalf of all of us and her speech far outweighs any words I could use to describe our program:

Thank you!  I am truly honored and humbled to accept this award on behalf of the Cherished Portraits team.  I’d like to express our appreciation to the Corridor Business Journal for this award, and for seeing the value in the service that Cherished Portraits provides to families at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital who have experienced the loss of a child.  It really is such a team effort, and there are lots of people who deserve recognition for their service to Cherished Portraits.  From Jean and her staff in volunteer services, to Jane and Sheila who have helped to develop and coordinate the bereavement programs; to Mindy and Jaimy, the photographers who first started the program, (who couldn’t be here today), and to Sarah and Emily who are also part of the team of photographers.  And I especially want to thank our ladies who carry the pagers.  We call them our ‘Pager Angels’, Peggy, Cheri, Pauline and Jackie, who are really the unsung heroes in this whole thing.  They get the page from the hospital that a photographer is needed, and then have the challenging job of calling all of the photographers and trying to find one of us that is available to take the session, which many times means calling multiple numbers for each of us.

As a photographer in the program, I am often asked how I can do what we do.  People’s immediate reaction to hearing about Cherished Portraits is “Oh, I could NEVER do that!” And to be honest, when I was originally approached by Jane about being part of the team, that was my reaction too.  But something kept me from just rejecting the idea all together.  You see, the reason Jane knew me was because she had been one of our nurses when I was experiencing complications throughout my last pregnancy.   We spent a lot of time at the U being evaluated and undergoing procedures, and my baby eventually spent 8 days in the NICU after he was born. I now have a healthy 3-yr old, but I couldn’t help thinking that if our situation had taken a turn for the worse, that I would have wanted photographs of our baby.  It seemed like the least I could do to give back to the hospital and to these families experiencing loss.  So I told Jane I’d give it a try, but I couldn’t make any promises.

The very first session I was a part of for Cherished Portraits was with a nearly full-term stillborn baby.  This mother-to-be was waking up every morning with anticipation, wondering if today would be the day that she became finally became a mother. But that terrible morning, she woke up and felt no movement.  By that evening, she was delivering her stillborn baby.  That session is one that I will NEVER forget.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I went home and couldn’t sleep, felt sick all night, and laid there wondering why life was so unfair sometimes.  It was awful.  But I also realized that as awful as I was feeling, it was a million times worse for that family…and yet they had been so gracious and so appreciative that we had been there to help them.I’ve learned a lot in the 30-some sessions I’ve done since then. While I handle them better emotionally now, they are never easy, never comfortable.  But it seems that most growing in life is done through uncomfortable situations, in situations that challenge us.  I’ve seen first-hand that what I call a ‘bad day’ is a walk in the park compared to what other people are facing, and I’ve learned not to take any part of my  own children’s lives for granted.  They get lots of hugs when I get home from a session.  And I’ve learned that I am a better person thanks to the experiences I’ve been a part of through Cherished Portraits. 

I’ve always said that being involved with CP was “strangely rewarding”.  That’s the only way I could describe it. It’s truly one of the most meaningful things I’ve been a part of.  As portrait photographers, we are so often involved in the BEST day of our clients’ lives.  We shoot weddings and engagements, we photograph newborn babies and their happy families, some of us even photograph births.  But through Cherished Portraits we’re meeting people on the worst day of their lives, and even something as small as taking a few pictures can make a big difference in their life that day and beyond as they grieve and remember their child.  There’s a quote I’ve always loved and lived by that says, “It is good to be blessed, but it’s even better to be a blessing.”  Thank you to those families, nearly 200 of them now, that have allowed us into their lives, and allowed us to use the gifts we’ve been blessed with to return a blessing to them.  This award really is dedicated to the families that we have served and will continue to serve through Cherished Portraits, and to those precious babies we have been honored to photograph. Thank you.

The Pager Angels (and me). Without them, this program couldn’t run.

Following that news, the AHA (American Hospital Association) announced in April the winners of its 2012 Hospital Awards for Volunteer Excellence (HAVE) Awards. The HAVE awards recognize the important contributions of hospital volunteers in four areas: community service, fundraising, in-service hospital volunteer, and community outreach and collaboration programs. We were so honored to receive the in-service hospital volunteer award this year.

The HAVE awards are being presented today at the AHA 2012 Annual Membership Meeting in Washington, DC and a few from our group are able to be there to accept the award. I am, frankly, sad to be missing out, but feel so truly honored to be part of this team. As Laura said in her speech back in February, this is really dedicated to the families we are able to serve and to the babies we’ve been honored to photograph. It’s more than a camera, a skill, a photograph; it’s about touching lives and preserving moments. It’s about being a blessing.

Photo above taken by Sarah this morning at the brunch in DC.

*If you are a photographer in the Iowa City area and want to become involved in this program or get more information, please please let me know and I can get you in touch with the right people. We are in need of more photographers willing to serve in this capacity.

Saundra Hoffert -

Thank you Emily for posting this. I am SO sorry you had to miss the trip ( I thought you were going :O( ) I don’t know if Sarah has told you but she had a stillborn older sister and what I would give to have had a program like this 38 yrs ago! Thank you for what you girls do and I am SO pleased that Sarah is a part of this “ministry”!

Cindy Shepherd -

Wow what a ministry!

Sherry Swartzentruber -

Thank you for being a blessing.

Carolyn M -

Emily, it blesses me so much to know that you are involved in Cherished portraits. I wish so badly we would have had this service after the births and deaths of our two little angels. Thanks for reaching out to others in their time of grief and pain and being a blessing to them in this way.

Mary Brenneman -

Emily, thanks for posting this. It sounds like a very special thing you do for the parents who are so unfortunate and having to say good-bye to their child. Blessing to you!

Alicia Ambler -

Sarah McElligott Have you heard about this? Thought of you.

Sandi Spurrell -

I am a photographer in the area and I am very interested in getting involved with this amazing program. I am a little hesitant, but I know what this means to the unfortunate families that go through this. Thank you for sharing!

Photographers Cherished by Hospital, Grieving Families | Iowa Hospital Association Blog -

[…] and the full strength of their hearts.  Emily Crall, a photographer in North Liberty, wrote on her blog that Cherished Portraits is “a tough job. More emotionally tough than technically […]

Kim Hadley -

I am so thankful for my little Maelani’s photos. I made a photo baby book and truly cherish the photos inside. We have many of the photos throughout the house including the one you have on the poster above. I love looking at the pictures of Maelani and keeping her present in our home. Thank you for memories.