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How a photo changed the life of a nurse who worked the COVID-19 unit of a Phoenix hospital

Mar 27, 2022

She didn’t quite recognize herself when she first saw the photo. Arms crossed, face partly covered with a white mask, standing defiantly in blue hospital scrubs, seeming to square off with a man in sunglasses holding a U.S. flag over his shoulders.

Lauren Leander had never been to a protest before she joined fellow nurses at the Arizona State Capitol in April 2020 on a day off from the COVID-19 ward at Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix. She was hoping to silently confront a loud and rowdy group demanding that Gov. Doug Ducey lift all restrictions that aimed to curb the pandemic, then at its initial phase.

The woman in the photo looked strong. Leander, reflecting on that day two years later, said that wasn't the way she felt that day.

“I felt really small at the time,” she said during an interview this year “I felt like a little nurse that wanted people to take this thing seriously. Like, wear a mask and listen to us.”

Leander would end up getting a lot of people to hear her message after the photo of her at the Capitol was posted on azcentral.com and printed in The Arizona Republic. The image resonated with people and buzzed around the nation and globe.

Over the next two years, Leander’s life would alter drastically. Some of the changes spurred because she happened to be captured in a photo that forever froze a split second of time.

Much of that day was a blur for Leander, who spent the better part of the afternoon standing outside the grounds of the Capitol.

She had no vivid memory of the man who passed her carrying a flag. She didn’t recall ignoring the questions from photographer Michael Chow, himself clad in an N95 mask, asking her what hospital she worked in.

“It was a stream of people,” she said. “It was just non-stop.”

People coughed on her as they passed, saying they were spreading to her the virus they were convinced was fake. Some questioned whether she was an actual critical care nurse or an actress.

Leander had read false theories about the pandemic online. But here were real-life people who believed them and were spouting them. And, to boot, coming up with conspiracy theories about her on the spot.

“It was a good opportunity to really look them in the eye and figure out who those people were and what they had to say,” Leander said.

As it happened, the day would also allow Leander to take a close look at herself and figure out who she was.

That introspection started after she came home. She was tired from hours of standing outdoors. She curled up for a nap.

She woke up to her phone buzzing with messages. The photo had started circulating. People were talking about the nurse who silently counter-protested at the Capitol. Friends had recognized her and were letting her know about the image.

Within days, Leander would become the most widely-recognized nurse in the United States.

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Leander did not always want to be a nurse. She changed majors at Arizona State University a few times before settling on it. “A voice in the back of my head just told me ‘nursing’ one day,” she said.

She knew she had found her calling on a volunteer trip to Guatemala. The difference she made in giving one-on-one attention to people who didn’t get health care regularly resonated with her.

She explored other jobs in the medical field, but nothing spoke to her like nursing. “There was something about nursing,” Leander said. “I’m your person. I’m here for you. I’m your advocate, tell me what you need. It’s something so unique to nursing.”

Leander worked in the critical care unit of Banner University Medical Center, a unit that she said, pre-pandemic, worked as a “well-oiled machine.”

On a typical shift, she would deal with rattlesnake bites, respiratory failure or various diseases. On some shifts, she was part of the “code” team, meaning she would be called into action when someone had shallow breathing or weak heart beats.

“We were always busy,” she said. “We were just damn good at it.”

Then came the pandemic.

A unit would be dedicated solely to dealing with COVID-19 patients. Leander volunteered to work with them.

She said she did so because she realized she was young, healthy and living alone. Other nurses were pregnant, she said, or mothers to young children.

The first COVID-19 patient at her hospital was a 27-year-old woman who was pregnant. Leander provided care for her, at times performing manual compressions on her chest to help her breathe. When that patient died, the death hit her hard.

“That changed everything for me,” she said. The woman was not older or with preexisting conditions, the markers that were supposed to lead to death. Leander realized she was not just susceptible to the virus, but could die from it.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was little known about how the virus was spread and, Leander said, little availability of protective equipment.

Leander said she worked with her first COVID-19 patients wearing a paper surgical mask and a paper gown that left her neck exposed. In this outfit — that medical guidance would later show to be inadequate — she would work on patients, including compressing on their chests to keep them breathing, leaving her covered in their secretions.

“We were in next to nothing,” she said.

Leander settled into a confining pace: work, home and back to work. She knew she was exposed to the virus every time she worked and didn’t want to spread it to her friends or family.

Leander saw news coverage of re-open rallies in other cities. She saw that nurses had come out to counter-protest, dressed in surgical scrubs and wearing masks. In Denver, nurses blocked traffic, momentarily stopping a convoy of cars that circled that state's Capitol.

On the morning of April 20, Leander got word that there was a re-open rally planned for the Arizona state Capitol in Phoenix. It happened to be her day off.

She texted some nurse friends to see if she could gather an impromptu group to mirror what had been done in Denver. “Anyone interested, come join me,” she said, recounting the general message she sent in texts messages and through social media. “We’ve got to go. We have to be there.”

Leander heard the crowd at the Capitol before she saw them. There were horn honks as cars circled the streets around the government buildings.

“I got goosebumps,” she said. “This is going to be big.”

She and three other nurses stood on 17th Avenue, along a raised crosswalk that led from the Wesley Bolin Plaza to the three buildings that housed the state House, state Senate and executive officers.

Signs had phrases like, “Economic suicide is not the answer” or “Give me freedom or give me COVID.” The few attendees with masks were those carrying long guns across their bodies, some dressed in Hawaiian shirts indicative of the extremist group, Boogaloo Boys. There were scattered signs showing support of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

On the plaza, a crowd listened to speeches shouted through a microphone passed around to willing speakers. One man said he would rather die of the novel coronavirus than have his freedom restricted. Another, who would briefly draw the attention of law enforcement, suggested that Democrat lawmakers needed to be shot.

After the speeches, the crowd made its way to the Capitol. And right past the line of nurses.

Leander and her fellow nurses had decided to stay silent, not engaging or arguing with the protestors. “I was not there to start a fight,” she said.

But she was surprised that their mere presence inspired such ire.

“We were triggering for them,” Leander said.

The nurses became the target of invective. It seemed like everyone who passed by had a mean comment.

She and her handful of fellow nurses were vastly outnumbered.

“It was a David and Goliath moment,” she said. “I was looking up at this beast that had been created and was spreading like wildfire.

“It was like there was two pandemics: the virus and misinformation.”

One man, wearing wrap-around sunglasses, had a U.S. flag attached to a pitchfork he held above his head. He walked close past Leander.

It was the shot that Chow, the Republic photographer, has envisioned when he saw Leander standing ramrod straight on the crosswalk. Chow framed Leander in his viewfinder and waited for someone to enter the frame opposite her.

When this pitchfork-carrying man did, he snapped. Though the resulting image cut off the tines of the pitchfork.

The photographer tried to get Leander’s name. She did not respond to his question.

But someone verified to the photographer that the woman was indeed a nurse. It was Sandra Leander, the mother of Lauren Leander. Though, she declined to give Chow her daughter's name. 

Sandra Leander was there because Lauren Leander had called her parents to tell them of her plan to be at the protest. Sandra, sensing her daughter wanted her there for moral support, decided to head to the Capitol.

Her father, Tom, had obligations for his job with Fox Sports Arizona, where he hosted the pre-and post-game shows for the Phoenix Suns. While the NBA had stopped playing games, Leander was hosting interview shows and lookbacks at classic games to help the channel fill the schedule.

Looking back, Tom Leander said during a phone interview this month that he was glad he wasn’t there. “When your youngest child and only daughter is in a situation like that, I’m not sure how I would have handled it,” he said.

At the Capitol, Sandra Leander texted her daughter, trying to find out where she was amid the sea of people. Then, she spotted her at the crosswalk on 17th Avenue. It was the first time the two had seen each other without a barrier between them in two months.

Sandra said, during an interview this month, that she caught her daughter's eye and they nodded at each other.

Leander and the nurses moved with the crowd to the Capitol mall. She stood in front of the stone building, now a museum, that sits at the center of the mall.

At that point, a reporter from a television station approached her. Leander knew the reporter through her father, Tom, and felt comfortable talking to him. 

“I’m here for my patients,” she said. “I am here for the people that are dying alone. I’m here for the people that can’t see their families in the last moments of their life. I’m here for the people that are truly sick and that are overflowing our ICUs at this moment.”

As she spoke, protestors gathered around trying to engage her further. But Leander ignored them as best she could. She stayed silent.

Sandra Leander had stayed distant from her daughter before. But, here in front of the old Capitol building, she got close enough to hear what protesters were saying while they walked past.

"I heard people say they hoped she caught the virus and dies," Sandra Leander said. "I heard pretty much every vile word you can think of."

At one point, Sandra Leander put herself between a protester and her daughter. As she did so, she could feel her blood boiling.

"If I didn't leave, I would have been in trouble," Sandra Leander said.

The protestors entered the lobby of the Executive Tower. Leander and her fellow nurses waited outside.

After a while, the crowd subsided. Leander went back to the crosswalk along 17th Avenue. But, she said, after seeing the same handful of cars drive around, she decided to call it a day and head home.

Leander had been fostering two kittens at her apartment. She curled up with them and fell asleep.

After her nap, she realized that the Republic photo was getting attention.

The photo was on the front page of the April 21, 2020, edition of The Arizona Republic.

Sandra Leander said she remembered picking up the newspaper from the driveway, opening it. "My mouth dropped open," she said.

Tom Leander also saw the photo for the first time on the Republic's front page.

“The quiet conviction she had,” he said, of his reaction. “There’s chaos surrounding her and her just being silent and strong. That’s what really captured everybody’s attention and respect.”

The next day, Lauren Leander spoke with a Republic reporter. That story attached a name to the viral photo. And more people wanted to speak to Leander.

She spoke with local TV news outlets. Then came the calls from national outlets. “It snowballed from there,” Leander said.

She appeared on Chris Cuomo’s show on CNN. She appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” She appeared on “The View.” There were podcasts and radio shows.

In normal times, such a media tour would have involved flights and hotel rooms. But, in the midst of the pandemic, Leander appeared on all these shows remotely over video conference. Her mother, the former TV reporter, gave her tips on lighting.

Leander knew that this attention would be fleeting. She wanted to use the opportunities she had to speak up for others in her profession, to try to get people to pay attention to the toll the virus was taking.

“It was not something I planned for myself, not something I tried to get, not something I would have ever wanted,” she said. “For whatever reason, I was just the person who was supposed to be there.”

Leander started using her sudden popularity to raise money to send food and medical supplies to the Navajo and Hopi communities, which had been hit hard by the pandemic. Her campaign raised more than $250,000.

Beyond the media appearances, Leander was still working shifts in the critical care unit of Banner hospital. The pace became unrelenting and Leander had no idea how long it would continue.

Leander said she received a few messages on Instagram from people who were at the April 20 protest and later became sick with COVID-19. “That event was a super spreader,” she said.

The messages were apologetic, she said, with the people thanking her for her work and expressing regret for attending the protest.

In the first weeks of the pandemic, Leander said she and her fellow nurses felt celebrated. People were ordering food to be delivered to the hospital to feed the staff. It was an unexpected show of community generosity.

But that ended abruptly, Leander said, after Memorial Day. “There was a very clear end to it,” Leander said.

She would send messages and photos to her parents. In one, sent on July 4, 2020, she was dressed in full plastic protective gear, including a helmet with a wide face shield. Tom Leander thought it looked like something given to astronauts by NASA.

Tom Leander posted the photo on Twitter with a message about how people’s actions affect his daughter and other health care workers. “Here she is celebrating her 4th of July tonight,” he wrote.

There was no end to the work in the COVID unit. And, still, no end to what Leander saw as the infection of disinformation.

Some patients refused to believe they had COVID-19, she said. She took verbal darts from family members of patients who felt the same way. “That’s the stuff that sticks with you,” she said. “That’s the stuff that wears on you.”

Leander never contracted the virus herself, despite the constant exposure.

“That’s a testament to masks,” she said. “That’s a testament to vaccines.”

Over time, the attention died down. The invitations to appear on television shows slowed to a trickle. Her social media mentions and messages became normal.

All around Leander at the hospital, nurses were feeling burnout and, by December 2020, started to leave.

Leander said there were unfulfilled promises about hazard pay, new protective equipment and extra staffing.

“I held out as long as I could,” she said. “Finally, it got to the point where I had to admit I couldn’t do it anymore.”

She stuck around until March 2021, just after an appearance on ABC's "GMA3" meant to mark the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. Leander said she didn’t feel any excess pressure to stay because of her fleeting media profile. She simply stayed as long as she could, and that was longer than some, working a job she saw as a calling.

“I felt like I was leaving my family,” she said.

Soon after she left, her body rebelled.

After two days, pea-sized welts developed on her wrists and ankles. They then spread to her back and ears. They were hives, something new for Leander. Her doctor gave her steroids and with some rest, they went away.

Leander figured she was living off caffeine and adrenaline for so long that her body needed a reset.

In June, Leander used her nursing skills in her grandmother’s final days. It was a profound shift in the way she saw her job.

“It was the first time I felt like I was caring for the spiritual, energetic body as a nurse,” she said. “not just running drips and machines.”

Leander and a friend planned a months-long 1,000-mile hike through the Pacific Northwest to the Canadian border.

But, in the initial days of the hike, her friend broke his ankle, ending the trek.

The two were in a northern California city and Leander saw a clinic that was hosting a weekend training program in the practice of reiki.

That is a technique, first originated in Japan, that uses meditation and relaxation techniques, aided with gentle touching or even hands being placed near the body, according to practitioners, to direct the body’s energy flow.

Leander said it took a while for her “nursing brain” to reconcile the alternative therapy with the traditional techniques she had known. But, her experience with her grandmother had convinced her there was more going on in the body than what she learned in nursing school.

Her first patient for reiki treatment was her mother and Leander said she reported feeling refreshed afterward, with persistent pain spots gone. “I was floored,” Leander said. “How are people not talking about this?”

Leander has started to run reiki sessions out of an office in Mesa. Some of her patients are health care workers, including ICU nurses.

“It’s a full-circle journey for me,” she said. “I’ve experienced a new way of caring for somebody.”

Leander said she has gained greater confidence over the past two years, some of it coming from the photo that introduced her to the world. That photo also let Leander see herself in a new way.

“It brings me a sense of pride, brings me a sense of power,” she said. “I’m remembering what it was like to cross my arms and look protesters in the eye. That’s something I can draw on in the future.”

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With COVID-19 cases on the decline, Leander is hopeful the worst of the pandemic is over. But she’s not sure if her fellow citizens took any lessons from it on how to empathize.

“Can we still put each other first? Can we realize we’re still responsible for our community?” she asked.

There are myriad types of suffering, she said, from small business owners needing to shut down, people deteriorating mentally from social isolation and families losing loved ones.

And all of those effects — direct and indirect — were caused by people continuing to spread the disease to each other, she said. “It was in our hands,” she said, “It was in our control this entire time.”

Her circular journey could bring her back to the intensive care unit. It was always a job she prized. Until COVID-19 upended it all.

“The itch is back,” she said.

Maybe, with COVID cases subsiding, the job could be what it once was for Leander: a varied, exciting, adrenaline rush that doesn’t lead to burnout.

“It’s a piece of me, a piece of who I am,” she said. “I’m grieving that loss of not being an ICU nurse in the way that I know and love.

"I need that again.”

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