WKAR Documentary Follows Essential Healthcare Worker Through COVID-19 Pandemic

Sep 29, 2020

More than 7,000 Michiganders have died from COVID-19 in the past 6 months, and every day, essential workers in the healthcare industry are putting their lives on the line to fight the pandemic.

WKAR-TV is premiering a new documentary this week that follows one visiting nurse who treats coronavirus patients after they leave the hospital.


It’s called "COVID Diaries: On the Front Line." It premieres on Thursday, October 1st at 10 p.m.

WKAR’s Sophia Saliby spoke with the documentary’s director, Nicole Zaremba, and the film’s main subject, Rhonda Lee, about the film and how they made it.

Interview Highlights

On What Makes COVID-19 Different For Rhonda

Just being a nurse, there are other things. There's always something. There was H1N1. There was HIV. There was this; there was that, and so I've had to wear N95 masks. That's not new, but what's new is everything I have to do and all the time I have to take away from my family during this time in order to keep us all safe.

On How Nicole Worked With Rhonda To Film The Documentary

I almost view Rhonda as a partner in this because I really had to explain, you know, the purpose of each shot, which normally I wouldn't do with, you know, somebody that I'm highlighting in a film. But I just kind of had to explain like, "Alright, so we need a wide shot of this or an exterior of your house, so we can use this to establish in the film where you live and as a transition shot," because you don't want to see a bunch of, you know, talking heads in a film. It's also visually appealing.

On How Rhonda Saw Connections Between The Pandemic And Racial Injustice

I noticed at the very beginning, that the systemic racism trickled over into COVID and the testing. I'm in the trenches, I know. There were quite a few people of color that were not being tested right away. My aunt actually fell into that, and they actually told me they were not going to test her even though she had a fever [and] even though she had a cough for two weeks. They were not going to test her. She ended up going to the hospital and dying a week later.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

More than 6,500 Michiganders have died from COVID-19 in the past 6 months. And every day, essential workers in the healthcare industry are putting their lives on the line to fight the pandemic.

WKAR-TV is premiering a new documentary this week that follows one visiting nurse who treats coronavirus patients after they leave the hospital. It’s called "COVID Diaries: On the Front Line." 

Joining me now is the documentary’s director, Nicole Zaremba, and the film’s main subject, Rhonda Lee. Hi Nicole.

Nicole Zaremba: Hello.

Saliby: And hi, Rhonda.

Rhonda Lee: Hello, how are you?

Saliby: I'm doing good, thanks. Nicole, can you tell our listeners what this documentary is about in broad terms?

Zaremba: Obviously, we are focusing on Rhonda, and pretty much it's her journey through the pandemic as things evolved in March and June and July, and really gives a glimpse into her life and what she experiences on a daily basis as a visiting nurse. We also get to see and meet her partner, Audrey, who is amazing.

Saliby: And I want to bring in Rhonda now. The pandemic has, of course, touched all of our lives in so many different ways. This documentary focuses on you and how it's impacted you as a healthcare worker. In the documentary, we learn you have to wear a mask at home [and] you don't sleep in the same bed as your wife anymore to keep her safe. Can you tell me more about how your life has changed?

Lee: Pretty much everything has changed. Like you said, I no longer sleep with my wife. Now when I got home, anyway, I would throw my clothes in the washer, you know, but I didn't like take a shower [and] all that, you know. I didn't do [that], but now I have to go through a whole "decontam" process. So when I get home, it takes me about 45 minutes before I can greet my family.

Just being a nurse, there are other things. There's always something. There was H1N1. There was HIV. There was this; there was that, and so I've had to wear N95 masks. That's not new, but what's new is everything I have to do and all the time I have to take away from my family during this time in order to keep us all safe.

Saliby: Obviously, there are challenges in making a documentary in the pandemic, Nicole, you couldn't be on location with a crew with cameras. Can you describe how you worked with Rhonda to actually film this whole documentary?

Zaremba: I got to know Rhonda and Audrey very well. I almost view Rhonda as a partner in this because I really had to explain, you know, the purpose of each shot, which normally I wouldn't do with, you know, somebody that I'm highlighting in a film. But I just kind of had explained like, "Alright, so we need a wide shot of this or an exterior of your house, so we can use this to establish in the film where you live and as a transition shot," because you don't want to see a bunch of you know, talking heads in a film. It's also visually appealing.

So luckily, Rhonda took to it amazingly, like I would send her a shot list, and we would go over it, and just kind of talk about that and the shots that I would like to get. You know, [it was the] same with video journals. Occasionally, I would send her some questions. You know, maybe you could do a video journal about this, as well as zoom interviews.

Saliby: And Rhonda, what was it like filming yourself and having your wife even help out a little bit?

Lee: It was different because I did a lot of my filming in the car driving, like that's my thing. I do that on TikTok. I do that on Twitter, like just kind of in my car and give my thoughts of the day, so that wasn't too much more different.

I think the thing that Nicole liked the most was that I had done this Facebook post, and I was just like blasting about how bad this is. It was in the beginning when I was like, "Oh my god, this is like, you know, Invasion of the Body Snatchers" or whatever.

So, I just kept doing more of those, and you know, she would tell me what she wanted me to do. I learned some new things, a reveal, I didn't know what a reveal was; now I know. You know, pictures and stuff, and then we started coming up with ideas. Hey, what about this? What about that? And also, I did some filming in my client's home as well, because you couldn't have a crew out because of COVID while I do this and that. 

Saliby: I'm Sophia Saliby. You're listening to WKAR. I'm talking to the director of the new WKAR documentary, "COVID Diaries: On The Front Line" as well as the film's focus, visiting nurse Rhonda Lee.

During the filming of the documentary, the country erupted in protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Nicole, can you describe how you incorporated this other major national event into the documentary?

Zaremba: You know, it's the time that we live in, and really, I would hope that this piece will be timeless, you know, 20 years from now, so people can look back on it and see, you know, where we were as a country, the environment that we lived in [and] the thought process.

And then as far as, you know, I started talking to Rhonda, a little bit about it, George Floyd, and you're kind of like, it's interesting with the connection with the virus, people can't breathe, and he was saying, "I can't breathe." And looking at it as like, well, the virus is something you can't see, just like, racism is something that you can't see.

So, you know, we started to connect the lines a little bit, and then I really just let Rhonda go with it and get her thoughts. I didn't want to leave her in any direction that she didn't feel because I wanted to be true to who she is and her story as well. That was really important to me.

Saliby: And Rhonda, in the documentary, you described the police killings of black Americans as kind of this pandemic in and of itself. Can you speak more on that?

Lee: Well, it's not just here, it's everywhere. A lot of people say, "Oh, you know, it's happening so often." It's not happening so often. It's just, it's being filmed now. And one of the things I wanted to say about the connection between the two is that I noticed at the very beginning, that the systemic racism trickled over into COVID and the testing. I'm in the trenches, I know. There were quite a few people of color that were not being tested right away.

My aunt actually fell into that, and they actually told me they were not going to test her even though she had a fever [and] even though she had a cough for two weeks. They were not going to test her. She ended up going to the hospital and dying a week later.

Saliby: Well, briefly, in these last few minutes, I'll ask both of you, what do you hope people learn or get out of this documentary? And I'll start with you, Nicole.

Zaremba: You know, I would hope that the feeling that people have is a feeling of empathy. Just, you know, what is it like to be an essential worker? What is it like to be a black woman in today's society? Like, I would just hope that feeling would come across, but it's not necessarily a certain message that, you know, I want people to make their own opinions and form their own opinions on that.

Saliby: And Rhonda?

Lee: Be better. Think about other people, you know? Be more compassionate, put yourself in other people's shoes. People will be able to put themselves in my shoes as an essential worker.

Saliby: Nicole Zaremba is the director of "COVID Diaries: On The Front Line" which chronicles the experience of nurse, Rhonda Lee. Thank you both for joining me.

Zaremba: Thank you.

Lee: No problem. Thanks for having me.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.