Office of Communications & Media Relations

Reflections: Mary King

Mary King, CC patient photographer for more than 30 years, shares her memories

Mary King
Mary King

Mary King has worked at NIH for more than 51 years, in various roles. Since November, 1981 she has been a patient photographer in the NIH Clinical Center. She shared her memories with Janet Hulstrand, from the NIH Clinical Center Office of Communications and Media Relations, in an interview conducted on November 5, 2013 in Mary's office in the basement of Building 10.

You started here when?

I started at NIH August 20, 1962.

And did you come as a photographer? Was that your first job here?

No. I was hired as a clerk in 1962. I came in as a clerk, since there wasn't anything else. I graduated from Poolesville High School with a business/commercial diploma and was looking for a secretary position.

So you were doing typing and filing, things like that?

Yes. I started I as a file clerk for Records Department, Service Operations Branch, NIMH, in Building 31. I was working at the Bethesda Shade and Awning Shop, making custom venetian blinds, while I was trying to get a job with the government. So, I got this interview, and I walked from the middle of Bethesda to NIH for my interview. Midway through the interview, Marguerite Ray, my interviewer, asked me, "What do you have in your paper bag?" And I said, "It's my tennis shoes." And she said, "What are you doing with tennis shoes?" And I said, "Well, I walked here from downtown Bethesda, I wasn't going to walk that far in my heels so I changed my shoes when I got here." She just looked at me kind of funny, and continued on with the interview. After the interview she went over to the personnel office and when she came back she said, "Well, I think we're going to give you the job." She said, "Anybody who walks from the middle of Bethesda in this heat deserves a job."

She saw your determination...and she was determined also...

OC-OPL-OPPE Team Award, December 1968 newspaper clipping
Team Award, December 1968

Yes. She was a very interesting person to work for. She was in charge of the Service Operations Branch. Her department was in charge of filing all of the incoming and outgoing correspondence for NIMH. I worked for the Service Operations Branch for about three years. Then I transferred to the National Clearinghouse for Mental Health Information for about 4-5 years. Then I transferred to the NIAID Training Grants Office and worked as a Secretary to Dr. Noel Gross for about a year before transferring back to NIMH as Secretary to the Deputy Director of Communications, NIMH . Then I accepted the position of Secretary to the Director of Communications, Mr. Gerald Kurtz. In 1969 Mr. Kurtz started the first information campaign against drug abuse. We worked with the White House, the Justice Department, sports authorities, and the clergy, to get the word out about not using drugs.

That would have been a good time to do that...

It was just when the drug abuse scene was coming on.

In 1972 Mr. Kurtz transferred to the Health Services and Mental Health Administration. Before he left he had asked me, "What do you want to do?" And I told him, "I'd like to change from a secretary and train to be a photographer." This was in 1970. He suggested that I apply for a training position and go to college to train as a photographer. The Photography and Art Department happened to be under the Office of Communications. So I went into a training position.

So you went back to school to learn photography?

Yes. I applied for and got into a training position. I worked half a day and went to Montgomery College. half a day. I did information and public affairs photography for NIMH. In 1972 I was asked to go on a detail to Health Services and Mental Health Administration as a photographer and I worked there for two years. After my detail ended I returned to NIMH and I worked there as a Public Affairs Photographer. I was caught in the RIF during the Reagan Administration. NIMH lost quite a few of their positions and the Technical Service Branch was abolished. In November 1981 a patient photographer position became available at NIH. I was on a RIF list and was offered the first photographers job that became available. I've been photographing patients since 1981.

When I came aboard, they needed a male and a female photographer. Several protocols called for a male to photograph the male patients and a female photographer to photograph the female patients. It happened that the female photographer resigned and I was able to transfer into her position.

So, you've done various kinds of photography. What is special or unique about patient photography? Or maybe a better question is, what special characteristics or qualities does the person doing that need to have?

Well, you have to have a lot of compassion for people who are very sick. The main thing is to photograph them so they are not uncomfortable. I've met some really nice people. Some are not real sick, but some are really sick. Several of our patients are in a lot of pain, so you have to be compassionate, and understand that you are invading their privacy and you have to do it in a way that doesn't make them feel like they're being put on the front line. All of the photographs we take of the patients belong to the NIH and are used to track their treatment. Some of the images we take are used for journals and textbooks, with the written permission of the patient.

We deal with all ages of patients from little kids that think we are going to do something to hurt them, to older people that need help getting into the positions we need them to get the best angle for the photographs.

The photography that you do is scientific photography, right? The purpose is to be tracking...

It's tracking certain protocols. Some protocols we photograph every six months, some every couple weeks, some once a year. It's kind of hard for a physician to remember what a person looks like, and what their problem was, when they see so many patients. They use the photographs to compare their treatment and the patients' progress while on the study. Some drug companies, I think, request certain photographs to show that the drugs they are providing are working. The photographs are used for several purposes.

We photograph in clinics while the doctors are examining patients, in the patients' rooms, in surgery, and in the patient studio.

Do you get to know the patients?

Oh, yes, I've been photographing some patients, in the family melanoma studies for about 30 years, from the time they were kids, and now they're adults. So you learn their history while you photograph them, they tell you all their problems, and you listen.

Are there any patient stories you can tell, any patients you particularly remember through the years?

There is a lot of them, but because of confidentiality, I couldn't tell them. There are a lot of stories that have been very heartwarming, and some I try not to take home, the sad ones. There's been a few that I've gotten to know so well that you think about them even when you leave here. How they're doing. Some of them call you up, and send you a card at Christmastime.

I can tell one story about a family. One thing we do is patient family group photographs when they come to the studio for their sessions. One July this one family came in and I did their family group shot. They wrote to thank me, and said they liked the photograph so they used it for their Christmas card. The next July they when they came back for their yearly checkup they brought their Christmas outfits, and we took their Christmas card photograph. (laughs) For the next three years when they came in we took their Christmas photo.

That was very good thinking on their part...very efficient...

We had to photograph them anyway. ...So that was a funny story...

What about stories about doctors that you might remember? How closely do you work with the doctors?

Oh, we do. I've been working with Dr. Margaret Tucker, NCI, for almost 30 years on the family study melanoma protocol. We photograph her protocol not only here in the hospital, but we'll got out in the field and photograph several family members that have a history of melanoma. We travel to the town they live in and the research team will interview, do skin examinations and photographs all the family members. In one weekend we have photographed as many as 30-35 patients in a family. We do the same photographs in the field as we do in the CC. I've been working with her for a long time, and some of the patients started on the protocol when they were little, and now they're adults.

I traveled almost two years with the researchers working on the BHD protocol. I traveled with a dermatologist and a team of doctors from the NCI Frederick. Dr. Maria Turner, a dermatologist from NCI, taught me a lot about photographing images for her department. She was a great teacher.We photographed the first Cushing's patient here at the NIH in early 1982. We photographed the first AIDS patients seen here at the CC.

What are some of the most striking changes you've seen in your time in the CC?

Mary King, December 1968
Mary King, December 1968

The change in the technology used for capturing images. I learned photography on the old Nikon F cameras, the ones where you had to take the back off, load the film and put the back on. Then we went to the automatic/manual setting cameras (which I didn't trust to give me the correct settings), and then to the early digital cameras. The first digital camera we purchased for Patient Photography was the Fujix/Nikon 1.3 megapixel camera. It was heavy and was only 1.3 megapixels. The images were horrible. Going from film to digital was a big change. The new digital cameras give us sharp and good color images.

When I first started working here, the Employee Health Center was down on B-2, where the loading dock is. They used to give you a complete physical exam before you could work here. Today they have a great space on the 6th floor. Just watching the number of the buildings being built in the last 50 years has been just fantastic. You look and you say, "What are they going to change now?" From our old studio on the first floor, we could watch them build the new hospital pounding in pilings and the cranes being set up. It was interesting to watch the building go up and sometimes you could feel the vibration from the work going on outside.

The CC has really changed in the facilities for the patients. The hospital is more user friendly in comparison to the gloominess of the old patient rooms. The hospital rooms are brighter and in a better location for the patients. They have computers in their rooms they can use. At one time the patients had to go down the hall and use one central telephone in the old hospital to call home.

Do you do any photography on your own, in your spare time?

I used to. I taught a Know-Nothing photography class at Montgomery College , Germantown Campus, for five years. I enjoyed doing that for a while but it took a lot of time away from my husband. I photographed weddings, family shots, and kids. After you work here nine hours a day, you don't even want a carry a camera with you on vacation, I just pull out my phone and take the photographs.

You'll be retiring soon, what do you think that will be like?

I know I will miss my coworkers since they are part of my extended family. I started working with John Crawford in 1981, and he just retired last year. I will have a lot of adjustments to make since I have worked for so many years.

So there will be a relatively smooth transition...

I hope so! Michael Spencer has been working with the patients for two years and he's doing very well. I am training another photographer, Brooke Bready. She has been in training since March. She is well liked by doctors and patients.

Do you think you're going to miss this place?

Oh! Definitely! I'm a workaholic. (laughs)

And what are some of the things you'll miss the most?

Probably the happy faces of my colleagues.

What do you think is important for Americans to know about the work that goes on here?

Well, you know, a lot of the patients who come here don't even know about NIH until they get here. The websites have really spread the word about NIH, because they have support groups for different types of syndromes. We had the progeria conference here several years ago, and we always thought there was just a few of the progeria kids, and I think they had about 50 patients attend the conference.

That must have been wonderful for them...

It was. And, like the Cushing's patients, when NIH started the protocol for patients they didn't have anywhere to go to get information. One of the patients started a website on Cushing's. She went on to become an endocrinologist, and she treats Cushing's patients. But the websites have expanded, to spread the word about what NIH does. A couple of the patients have started their own websites because they couldn't find information about the particular syndrome, and they said you would be surprised by how many people notify them. Some of the patients who have a particular syndrome, get together every year. So I think that the websites are doing a lot.

What about just generally, though? What do you think it would be good for people who aren't directly connected with NIH to know about it?

Well, you know, a lot of people, it's their last resort, coming here to be treated. And I think NIH has been mentioned quite a bit during the furlough. I think maybe some people have been made aware of how important the protocols are here at NIH. Patients when they come here they say that it's so different, because the doctors will give them all the time they need. They don't say, "Oh, I've got to go somewhere, because I have to make another dollar." They're amazed at the time, and the care they are given here. Most people say they're just amazed at the quality of care.

I've only been here for a short time, but I've already heard that sort of thing said quite a few times...

I hear it all the time.

Any final words?

This is a wonderful place to work. It really is.

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