Meadville Tribune

January 9, 2014

Outside the Box: Close your eyes and breathe — the human heart can only take so much

By Cheryl Hatch
Meadville Tribune

Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

Last week, after the Texas A&M versus Duke college football bowl game, posts from my photojournalist friends started pouring into my Facebook news feed. Veteran Associated Press photographer Dave Martin had once again captured the classic image of the winning coach being doused in water.

The caption would read “Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is dunked in the closing seconds of a 52-48 win over Duke in the the Chick-fil-A Bowl NCAA college football game Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)”

Moments after making the image, Martin dropped on the field — dead, at 59, of an apparent heart attack.

He went by “Mullet,” after the fish not the hairstyle, according to one memorial piece. Colleagues, friends and family remember him as a generous man and great storyteller, on and off the job. A hard worker who put his heart into everything he loved: his job, his photography, his family.

In reflection, I read one story that included a selection of photos from the events Martin had covered in his 30-year career with the American wire service.

As I looked through the online gallery, I marveled at the images and the scope of his accomplished career. He covered hurricanes, tornadoes, the Olympics, Super Bowls and conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti.

I had one thought: the human heart can only take so much.

On Dec. 12, our classes had finals: one from 2 to 5 p.m. and another from 7 to 10 p.m. I went home, packed a suitcase and caught the flight from Erie to Houston, where my mom was undergoing unexpected heart surgery. I knew I wouldn’t make it before she went in. I darn sure wanted to be there when she came out.

There was a best-case scenario — and there were others that I wouldn’t consider and my father feared. Twelve days later, when mom unwrapped her presents that dad had piled under the Christmas tree, I knew our best gift wasn’t there. Our best gift is — and always has been — my mother’s resilient, tender, strong heart.

As a photojournalist, I once worked with a reporter on a story entitled “The Heart of the Matter” about a woman getting a new lease on life through open-heart surgery. The surgeon warned me there would be blood, and that many people wouldn’t be able to stomach watching — let alone photographing — the chest-cracking, blood-draining, multiple-hour procedure.

In Mogadishu, I photographed a gunshot victim as he reached up and tried to assist the medical students who were operating on him with no general anesthesia. They stood in pools of blood in a looted, dilapidated hospital. In Baidoa, I was barely an arm’s length from a gunman when he assassinated an unarmed volunteer schoolteacher at an orphanage, shooting him in the head at point-blank range. I watched the blood gush from his body.

Sure, I could handle the sight of blood.

More than a decade after Somalia, I would discover that I couldn’t handle the cumulative toll of my years as a reporter and photojournalist. I ground my teeth at night. I had debilitating migraines. I gained weight. My heart kept calling me. I kept shooting the suffering and depravity I witnessed in remote areas of the world and in American neighborhoods.

In 2003, I left my job as a staff photographer at the AP. I wanted to cover the Iraq War and there were no indications the editors would send me, even though I had experience in Iraq and combat. I had lived for years in the Middle East. I had knowledge of its history, cultures, peoples and the Arabic language. I didn’t want to miss the story of our generation, our war story.

In the end, I didn’t go to war and leaving AP did save my life. I chose a different destination. It was tough to resist the pull of the story, but I had abused my mind and body, especially my heart, for far too long.

I have heard the comments and questions about my life choices — the ones I made to go to war and the ones I made to stay away.

How could you leave such an exciting, glamorous, international and adventurous life for a boring one in a small town? Because my heart told me that the life I loved was killing me.

Many Allegheny students pursue their grades and degrees the way I chased stories. They live and learn on a pushed pace and under self-induced stress. Takes one to know one, as the childhood taunt goes.

Adrenaline-soaked, sleep-deprived and driven, these bright students are throwing themselves on the same pyre that burns day traders and journalists. It can be a slow burn or a fast one. If I hadn’t changed my ways and opted for healing and balance, I would have gone beyond burned out. I would have become ash.

I start each class at Allegheny with moments of silence. I invite the students to clear their desks, close their eyes and breathe. I tell them I care about their learning and their well-being. I care about their academic growth and their personal growth. I care about their minds.

And I care deeply about their young, open hearts.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.