At the heart of the photo, a woman advances on a walker, a wide smile on her face. She’s surrounded by healthcare workers from our CIUSSS who applaud her. In the background is a COVID-19 isolation unit—a place she’s joyfully leaving behind.
The picture captures a precious moment at Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Centre in June, 2020. The woman’s name: Freda Edelson.
The uplifting image is part of a new exhibition at the McCord Stewart Museum in downtown Montreal. Shot by award-winning photographer Michel Huneault, the series of photos offers a compelling, often moving chronicle of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic—a time that is already fading from memory as we approach the third anniversary of the virus’s appearance.
“I hope people will come away with a bigger appreciation of what we collectively accomplished, and where we are today.”Michel Huneault
Asked by the museum to mount a visual record of the pandemic’s dramatic early days, Mr. Huneault was granted access to the COVID-19 units of the Verdun and Notre-Dame hospitals, as well as to Maimonides, part of the CIUSSS West-Central Montreal. His photos are reminders that the pandemic produced many moments of fear and uncertainty—but also, as the photo of Ms. Edelson shows, powerful moments of human triumph.
“It was a rebirth,” recalls Mr. Huneault, who had spent several days with Ms. Edelson while she was in the COVID-19 hot zone, and wanted to be present to capture her emergence. He says her recovery gave meaning to society’s massive collective efforts during COVID-19. “It was like a major victory.”
After surviving COVID-19, Ms. Edelson passed away from a heart attack in July, 2021, at the age of 96. In her obituary, she was remembered as role model to her friends and family and “a champion of universal human kindness and dignity.”
Idah Sona, a Nurse Team Leader on the COVID-19 isolation unit at Maimonides, recalls the joy among staff when Ms. Edelson, who had been very ill, recovered from the virus.
“We were so happy when a resident got well and was able to walk again. It was like a miracle,” Ms. Sona says. Such occasions showed there was hope for the future, even during the darkest hours of the pandemic. “It meant we would survive. We could conquer COVID,” she says.
Ms. Sona also sees a positive legacy from the pandemic, despite the extreme hardships that it brought. Aware of the risks of contamination, staff protected themselves and one another. “We felt that if we didn’t work together, we would die together. Those are the main values of our CIUSSS—teamwork and collaboration.”
“We were so happy when a resident got well and was able to walk again. It was like a miracle. It meant we would survive. We could conquer COVID.”Idah Sona, Nurse Team Leader at Maimonides
The exhibit at the Sherbrooke Street museum also features scenes outside healthcare institutions, including haunting city landscapes of taped-off playgrounds, boarded-up basketball nets and deserted Montreal streets. The museum says it hopes the show will allow the public to reflect on the crisis and “pay tribute to the hospital staff, patients and families who contributed to this collective memory.”
“I hope people will come away with a bigger appreciation of what we collectively accomplished, and where we are today,” Mr. Huneault says. As for healthcare workers, “it’s important that their work be documented and that history recognize them.”
The photograph of Freda Edelson is one of 30 works acquired by the museum for its historical archive, where, according to McCord Stewart Museum CEO Suzanne Sauvage, “they will continue to bear witness to history in the making.”
Employees of CIUSSS West-Central Montreal get a 20 % discount on the price of entry to the McCord Stewart Museum while the INCIPIT – COVID-19 exhibition is on. Use promo code CIUSSSCOM2022. The offer is open to all CIUSSS employees and valid until January 22, 2023.
INCIPIT – COVID-19 includes 30 photos as well as projections of 150 photo and video images. The exhibit runs until January 22.
View more behind-the-scenes photos of the pandemic by CIUSSS West-Central Montreal photographer Isabelle Dubé.