An Iowa hospital’s volunteer program that provides photos for families of infants and children who have died or have life-threatening illnesses has earned national recognition from the American Hospital Association (AHA). The “Cherished Portraits” program at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) provides private, caring, professional portrait sessions on-site by professional photographers who volunteer on an on-call basis. The portraits are individualized to reflect each patient and their family.
Earlier this month in Washington, D.C., Cherished Portraits was among the programs from all around the U.S. to receive the Hospital Awards for Volunteer Excellence (HAVE) from AHA.
“The Cherished Portraits program has truly made a difference to countless grieving families in their darkest hours by creating positive memories for them to treasure forever,” said UIHC CEO Kenneth Kates.
A special group of hospital volunteers helps triage the calls and ensures requests are divided equally among the photographers. The volunteers, recruited from those serving in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), carry pagers from 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily (the photographers call the volunteers “Pager Angels”). Staff volunteer supervisors and nurses coordinate the program and recruit professional photographers as volunteers. At no cost, each family receives an archival CD of the images which they can use to print portraits or create other mementos with the image of their child. More than 175 portrait sessions have been offered since the program started in 2007.
“The time, talent, and compassion they share is a perfect example of why we are so proud of our volunteers,” Kates said.
For the photographers, being part of the program takes the best of their professional eye — 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 challenging.”
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…It’s more than a camera, a skill, a photograph; it’s about touching lives and preserving moments. It’s about being a blessing.
Earlier this year, Cherished Portraits received the Health Care Hero Award for volunteers from the Corridor Business Journal in Cedar Rapids. Photographer Laura Steele Eckert accepted the award and tried to explain “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 (Wilkins, the staff supervisor for Cherished Portraits) 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 eight days in the NICU after he was born. I now have a healthy three year 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.
Speaking on behalf of all the UIHC staff, volunteers and photographers involved with the program, Eckert said, “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.”