Tuesday, April 2, 2013

07- A Brownie Hawkeye And A Whole Roll Of Film


Carefully crafted shots from my first roll of film.
I’ve always been drawn to cameras. My earliest memories include flash bulbs and snapshots and funny faces on photo booth strips. Growing up, there were lots of pictures. My Mom gave me a Brownie Hawkeye and a whole roll of film to do with as I pleased when I was 6 years old. I had no problem exposing the 12 frames on my toys, my little brother, or our neighbors. There was a lot to shoot and I chronicled my childhood from grade school through high school.
The Byrds
1966 Memphis State
Chris Hillman-David Crosby-Mike Clarke-Roger McGuinn
In collage, I took courses in darkroom editing and photography, hung out with some of the staff at the school paper and yearbook and got pretty good at getting backstage to shoot stills at rock concerts and local TV stations. I took film courses in graduate school at Memphis State and SMU but never completed my Master’s Degree. My SMU classes in Dallas, however, produced a job lead at Parkland Hospital.

It was 1971 when I began my journey as a paid cinematographer working for Southwestern Medical School. Mike Lorfing, head of the Medical Arts Department, hired me to photograph training films ordered up by the school staff, which I shot in the emergency room of Parkland Hospital.  If someone requested a film about, say, intubation or chest tube insertion, I waited in the ER with my 16mm Arriflex until the procedure happened. I did what I could to improve the odds of getting the shot by planning my strategy. For the general public, Friday was payday, and if Friday hit on the 1st or the 15th it usually meant a shorter wait, if it was raining, shorter still. More accidents meant more procedures. But, despite the best of plans, I spent many hours there waiting in the emergency room, receiving an unexpected education in human psychology. On my first night, I watched as a man was rolled into Trauma Room 2 and swarmed over by the ER team. It seemed he was barely conscious but an ambulance crew member with a clipboard hounded the man for information. “What’s your name?” “Where do you live?" he shouted over and over. It seemed cruel. I later learned they wanted the patient to be alert as possible and this, gathering of information, was actually part of the evaluation. They say the quiet ones lay there and die. I had lots of time to read the police reports and, early on, saw the benefits of wearing a seat belt, at that time not standard equipment in a new car. To me, it was as clear as day. Seat belts saved lives and reduced injuries. It began a habit that would, years later, save my own life. I saw the best and the worst of people while shooting my movies. A newborn on one night; a man with an ax imbedded in his forehead on another; the incredible heroics of the ER personal, all just part of the humdrum on a rainy Texas night; lots of people under lots of pressure, living their lives, doing their jobs. It was fascinating to be so close to it and, not just be allowed to watch, but expected to watch. It was a requirement for the job. It was exciting. I don’t think I ever got tired of it. Trauma Room 1 sat mostly unused just across the hall. I was standing in it, mostly to get out of the way and take a short break, when one of the staff mentioned it was the room where President Kennedy was pronounced dead. I didn’t see any markers then, nothing to commemorate that grim day. I guess the blood from the 1963 assassination was still too fresh in Texas to publicly point out such a place. I would have never known it was this room where he died. It gave me chills just like the time I first heard of Kennedy’s shooting on that November 22nd over my high school’s PA system as we rehearsed the Hallelujah Chorus for the approaching Christmas concert. I still get chills, having nothing to do with the holidays, every time I hear it.
I also worked for Dr. Charles Baxter who pioneered new treatment for burn injuries using pigskin. In the 1970s Parkland Hospital was one of the largest burn centers in the country. I was almost late for my new assignment. There was no time to lose. I was there to shoot a skin graft, already in progress. I quickly changed into scrubs and hurried into the OR to set up my camera. This was my first operation and it really took me by surprise. With a deep breath, I absorbed the bloodiest scene I had ever witnessed. It looked, for the entire world, like a medieval torture chamber. The patient was face down; his arms and legs spread out, with several people attending him. Burns, covering his back, arms and hands, were being “roughed up” with brushes to make the new skin attach better; the freshly scrubbed wounds now enlarging into one great bloody mass. The medical team, working on his unburned legs, were shaving and lifting away, long patches of very thin skin leaving pale, but quickly oozing red, trails behind.
Running a little late that morning and missing breakfast had turned out to be a good thing. The long strips of skin were fed into a machine that sliced them so they could be stretched, like a net, to cover a much larger area. It formed a pattern of small diamond shaped spaces where new skin could grow and fill in. There would be other skin grafting operations but this stage of treatment meant he was nearing the end of a long healing process. Up until now he had been kept alive by dressing his burns with thin, specially treated, pigskin every three or four days to prevent infection and water loss but the old pigskin had to be removed to keep it from incorporating into the body. That was a slow and very painful process. I documented 5 or 6 patients in the program, including a child, as they went through the various stages of recovery. Each time they endured this procedure I filmed their progress. I had to be careful with my lights as the burn patients sometimes felt the heat, even at several feet away. Most of the patients I shot were young men with horrifying stories about carburetor backfires or stove fuel explosions. Some of them cried and all of them trembled as the nurses worked on their wounds. It was hard for everyone in the room but the results were miraculous. New strides were being made daily. By 1973 the developing techniques were saving lives like that of an 8-year-old girl, burned over 92% of her body; as large a burn injury as anyone had ever survived. By this time I was working at WFAA-TV but I still filmed stories about Dr. Baxter and the Burn Center for the news while I was shooting at Channel 8. I’ve taken every opportunity over the years to work on medical stories whenever I can. I find them fascinating. I’ve shot everything from brain surgery to transsexual operations, from hip replacements to early defibrillator testing on live patients. A couple of seasons with Animal Planet’s “Emergency Vets” provided a real eye opener too; same stress, but animals present a whole different set of problems. You can’t simply ask where it hurts and how bad? End of life situations are very different and always heartbreaking. There were some great moments and funny ones as well. I remember shooting with Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, the standup comic and popular Emergency Vets veterinarian, when a lady came in with a shoebox containing a turtle. She said she and her husband were getting a divorce and wondered if Dr. Fitzgerald would put the turtle to sleep? The camera was rolling on all of this, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud, but Kevin never cracked a smile. He put his arm around the distraught woman and consoled her. “We won’t put your turtle to sleep but we’ll find him a good home”, he said.  After she left, Kevin jokingly wondered if the couple had any other lose ends to tie up, like kids. Wonder what the husband thought of all this?
As for the turtle, Kevin gave him to me and I named him Pema. It was definitely a step up for Pema. He went from a cold shoebox to a heat lamp and a small, fresh water, pool with occasional strolls in the backyard. 
I kept that turtle in a comfortable landscaped aquarium for 10 years until a visiting little boy convinced me Pema and the aquarium would be happier with him. Seemed like a win, win for everybody.
Not all stories finish with a happy ending but it’s nice that some of them do.

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