2023 Online Commentary, Personal Narrative finalist

Tenderness and brutality: True stories from an ICU

About the Project

It was still dark when ICU nurse Ernesto Barbieri arrived for his shift. The day that followed was both thrilling and mundane; lives were saved, but life is precarious there every day. This true account, written by Barbieri and illustrated by his wife, graphic journalist Jess Ruliffson, details how extraordinary one ordinary day is in the ICU. The title, “Tenderness and brutality,” refers to the often painful measures required to sustain a person’s life and well-being: the isolation of intubation, the security presence required to calm an addict.

“A big dilemma among ICU nurses is balancing the instinct to comfort with the desire to heal,” said Barbieri. “Often our patients are end-stage, and yet we find ourselves ‘treating a number’ and not a human being. We often say: ‘If people could just see what we do here, they’d reconsider the cost of life-prolonging measures.’

“In my opinion, there is no more marginalized and vulnerable group than the critically ill. In many cases they are literally voiceless. There are no advocacy groups for the critically ill — the nurse is the advocate. Or the family is the advocate. Which is a terrible burden to place on the grieving.”

Barbieri’s honest, lyrical text is woven beautifully into Ruliffson’s bright and loving illustrations to create that voice for the critically ill.