A Texas physician splits his time between the emergency department and his photography dark room. In both, he finds deep lessons about the vulnerability of humanity.
Jeffrey Gusky, MD, FACEP, lives 2 lives — one as an emergency physician, and the other as a fine-art photographer and explorer.
Gusky works full-time as an emergency physician with Altus Emergency Centers in Houston, TX, but resides in Dallas. In order to pursue his second career, he condenses 2 months of shifts into 2 weeks.
“I get to practice quality medicine,” Gusky says. “I have the time and patience to really be compassionate and do a thorough workup. It’s a great opportunity to do the part of medicine that is so important to me—the caring.”
Gusky’s first year of medical school at the University of Washington was spent in Alaska as part of the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) Program, created to inspire students to become country doctors.
The tenets of the program rubbed off, and Gusky soon thereafter combined his love of flying and rural medicine by using his plane to reach remote hospital emergency rooms on short notice throughout Texas and Oklahoma. While that might sound like an overly frenetic schedule, Gusky says it’s a wonderful environment in which to work.
“Sometimes I get pretty busy, but you’re detached from the notion about time and money,” he explains. “You’re not thinking about either one of those. You’re just thinking about the patient. That sounds a little pie in the sky, but that is what I get to do.”
And he continues to teach that specialized skill to others. Since 1991, Gusky has taught trauma skills to other physicians as an instructor in the Advanced Trauma Life Support program, and is a fellow of the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Fueling Dual Careers
In his “other” career, Gusky’s most recent project, The Hidden World of WWI, is a black and white photography collection that captures never before seen underground cities where WWI soldiers escaped trench warfare. The doctor says his passion for ER medicine and his passion for discovering new places comes from the same source. He likes helping people and guiding them through a journey—whether it’s one of health or grief, or through an instance of historical significance.
“We live in a world where often we are vulnerable to illusions about modern life, about science, and we have kind of a fatalistic view about the probability of science to perfect the world and to perfect human nature,” Gusky says. “And it makes us very, very vulnerable. And this is what World War I is really about.”
How does that connect to medicine? Gusky says he’s able to do with a camera what he does for patients at their bedside, only for a much larger audience.
“By being adventurous and going with a camera, which causes you to look very closely at things that are hidden from plain site, you can see things to help us understand who we are today, and to help people see vulnerability,” Gusky says. “This is what I try to bring to photography—a sincerity and curiosity about where we’re vulnerable.”
The Photographic Impetus
It was about 20 years ago when Gusky heard a radio interview with Ruth Ellen Gruber, a former correspondent in Eastern Europe for United Press International, about a book she had written, Jewish Heritage Travel. She had been behind the Iron Curtain just after the end of Communism.
“She was talking about this world that was frozen in time,” Gusky recalls. “I decided at that moment to go to Eastern Europe. And I decided I would go in the dead of winter, to get as close to the experience, the hardship, that people went through during the Holocaust as I could.”
He purchased a camera and related equipment, read the instructions on the plane, and eventually found himself in Poland on a gray, bleak December day. He was told by local residents that there was nothing left to see, but intuition told him otherwise. And when he crested the top of a hill and saw the outline of a Nazi-era barbed wire fence, he knew his intuitions were right.
“I saw a building with bars on the windows,” he recalls. “I went inside, and the place wreaked with feeling. I just had this terrible feeling of the atrocities that had taken place there. And it was like a switch flipped on. I began photographing what I was feeling. And when I came back, I was in a lab getting the negatives and prints developed, and everyone in the store went silent. It was almost like the photographs were haunted.”
Gusky continues to explore the world photographing pieces of the past, and has returned regularly to France since 2011 working on his current project. Before that, he published 2 books of black-and-white photography, participated in multiple national exhibitions including the pairing of his work with the Spanish master Francisco de Goya and the legendary early 20th century photographer Roman Vishniac, and had a traveling exhibition of his work ranked by Artnet Magazine in its 2009 list of the Top 20 museum shows in America.
Gusky says it all aligns with the purpose of being a physician.
“The origins of the modern world explain so much about the most pressing issues,” he says. “And what it all comes down to is actually pretty simple. And it’s something that is preserved in the ER. It has to do with our humanness.”
In other words, he explains, he can't be fake in the ER. Not in situations he refers to as mini 9-11 moments.
“Everyone forgets about his or herself and focuses on basic human needs,” he says. “There are no illusions. It’s just like after 9-11. People did these great acts of courage and selflessness. And we get to see a little bit of that every day in the ER. And that’s good. There’s hope in that.”