The last memory he had before heart surgery was handing his camera to his son.
In June, Messenger photographer Joe Duty noticed his health was rapidly deteriorating.
“I’d been working outside,” he said. “Back then I’d come in every night and have a half or full bottle of wine and dehydrate myself. I started shaking uncontrollably and was overcome with chills and fevers.
“My girlfriend Darla (French) finally convinced me to go to the ER,” Joe added. “She said, ‘We could do this the easy way or the hard way.’ I went and never found out what the hard way was.”
It was diagnosed as a gall bladder problem – but during the examination, doctors discovered a troubling issue with the heart.
“They found out that three of my arteries were 90 percent blocked,” Joe said.
Less than 30 percent of his heart was functioning. They couldn’t perform gall bladder surgery due to his heart. A life of excessive drinking and smoking had left him in precarious health. His liver was not operating properly.
Duty already had a genetic predisposition for heart problems. His father, Bobbie Joe Duty Sr., had a quadruple bypass at 44. Add in diabetes, and the risk for something going wrong during any of the upcoming procedures worsened.
Dr. Arshad Yousef with Wise Regional Health System in Decatur recommended bypass surgery as soon as possible.
“The three-day period leading up to the surgery became almost worse than the surgery,” Joe said. “You’re waiting and thinking about what could go wrong. I was also going through alcohol and nicotine withdrawal.
“And I was going through camera withdrawals,” he added. “So I told Darla to get me my camera. I started chronicling it. If I started over-thinking it, I would just grab my camera and try to find and compose a photo.”
Many of the photos are taken from the point of view of being trapped in a hospital bed. Lots of the self-portraits include typical days and nights in a hospital: breathing exercises, nurses pricking arms with needles, spoons and red Jello, tile floors and a myriad of beeping machines.
“I kind of orchestrated the shots around me,” Joe said. “I could see the angles and knew what I wanted so I got people to take them for me.”
Darla and son Jake Duty both helped capture the images he couldn’t get himself. Even nurses helped sometimes. But using a wide-angle lens on the Nikon, he was able to take plenty of high-resolution selfies throughout his stay at the hospital.
Joe even filmed himself in a video as he was being rolled into surgery.
And he asked son Cody to help chronicle the process as well. Cody, 25, is a photographer at the Houston Chronicle. Almost instinctively the photojournalist answered.
“I thought to myself, ‘This could be really good,’” Cody said. “It could be a really visual story and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And ultimately I was honored to cover this story because of all me and my dad have been through.
“I was especially excited about shooting in the operating room, but I changed my mind about that. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay in there and cover it like a professional if something happened.”
The prospect of covering a loved one raises questions of journalism ethics and the ability to be unbiased and objective and maintain the same level of professional quality and integrity.
As his father passed through the hall and a nurse rolled him under fluorescent white, powdery lights on his way to the operating room, it became clear to Cody he couldn’t maintain an objective, professional mask. Despite covering and photographing a wide range of death and trauma at major media markets across the state and country, Cody was unable to perform at the same level in these circumstances.
“I remember getting my shot of medicine and then being rolled to the OR,” Joe said. “I was videoing myself for the three- or four-minute trip. Then the last thing I remember was giving Cody my camera … Then I woke up, and there were tubes coming out of me. I was coughing. There was pain everywhere.”
“He went by with tubes hanging from his nose and his mouth,” Cody said. “He was delirious, coughing and choking. It brought tears to my eyes seeing him like that. I knew I couldn’t have handled it during the surgery if something went wrong.
“When I cover someone I don’t really know, it’s easier – it’s on a different kind of level,” Cody added. “I really feel it in the moment. But afterwards I can compartmentalize the emotions. But when it comes to covering somebody you love, it’s almost unbearable. And you can’t just put the emotions up in a box afterwards.”
From his perspective, you can understand why doctors aren’t allowed to practice on family members. Cody had problems operating his camera in that situation – imagine a doctor performing surgery on a parent or child.
“I didn’t really overcome the situation,” Cody said. “I tried to cover it from a non-biased perspective, just like I would any story, but it’s difficult to do. I was trying to cover it in that moment, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t composing the way I normally do.
“I just shot my way through it. I got lucky. There was a sensor in the camera that alerted me if the image was in-focus. That’s about all I could concentrate on.”
For Joe, documenting his experience removed him enough from the situation that he could cope with what he was going through.
“It was almost like I was looking at myself through somebody else,” Joe said. “And doing that I almost think it’s going to help my work in the future, make me more sympathetic to people going through their own issues.
“It drove home the importance of what I do. There’s a lot of people in the world that do what I do. The only thing is this time I was telling it more to myself than I was telling it to anybody else. I’ve gone back and looked at it so many times after. Darla, who helped take care of me during all this, still cries when she looks back at it.
“You take yourself out of it. It was kind of a pacifier for me. I really don’t know what I would have done without the camera in my hand … That and the love of my family helped carry me through it.”
It has helped build empathty in both Joe and and his son.
“I hope to draw from the experience and maybe do a better job of telling other people’s stories,” Joe said.
“Covering this story has made me feel more vulnerable, which has helped me as a journalist,” Cody said.
All kinds of traits get handed down from father to son – behavior patterns,. health issues or sometimes, a craft.
On the way into heart surgery, Joe handed the tool of their shared craft to his youngest son, not knowing if it might be the last moment they shared.
“The last thing I see is Cody’s hand reaching for that camera,” Joe said. “The hand-off. It’s become the most sentimental part of the entire process.”