From pictures to a president

Jul 21, 2021 | Spotlight

By Laurel Deppen

On the evening of Nov. 30, 2018, former President George H. W. Bush laid in his bed, surrounded by his family as Ronan Tynan, a member of the Irish tenors, sang “Silent Night.”

The president loved Christmas carols, and as Tynan sang by his bedside, Bush mouthed the lyrics.

“You can’t help but maybe take a step back and kind of look at this from a historical perspective, but he wasn’t just a patient,” said Evan Sisley, a former Western Kentucky University student and Bush’s personal aide for the last four years of his life. “He was a mentor.”

About four hours later, Bush died.

“I didn’t stop as much to think about my place in it because my place was to provide direct care,” Sisley said. “I was doing what I was supposed to do.”

The path to the president’s bedside

Sisley first saw death at 12 years old.

Sisley headed home after school in his mother’s car with his brothers in the back seat.

When the family got home, Sisley noticed his neighbor, an elderly man named Mr. Ford, was lying face down in his yard. Ford had suffered a heart attack, fell down and hit his head while mowing his lawn, Sisley said.

WKU graduate Evan Sisely

Sisley ran over to Ford, placed his head on his chest and listened for a heartbeat.

He couldn’t hear one, so he called his mother and asked her to call an ambulance.

When the ambulance arrived, Sisley asked a medic a question he said any normal kid would.

“Was there anything I could have done?” Sisley said to the medic.

Sisley felt guilt about his first time encountering something so serious.

“Well, if you had known CPR, it’s possible you might have been able to do something,” the medic said.

It wasn’t the most tactful thing to say to a child, but the incident sparked some of Sisley’s interest in helping people, he said.

Jamie Sisley, Sisley’s older brother, said Sisley discovering Ford’s body played a pivotal role in Sisley’s life.

“You never know what’s going to affect you deeply forever, and that seems a really big kind of a life changing event for him,” Jamie said. “I think it’s sort of in Evan’s character where he sort of turned that into an opportunity to help people later on in his life.”

People on the other side of the camera

Growing up in Fairfax, Virginia, Sisley became fascinated by a Minolta film camera stashed away in a closet. Maybe the camera’s gears are what fascinated him, but Sisley had a long interest in the visual arts, a family signature, he said.

Sisley — a descendant of French impressionist Alfred Sisley — said his familial ties to visual arts might have sparked his interest in photography. His father, Alfred Sisley III is a painter who also sells real estate. Sisley’s mother was a stay-at-home mom while he grew up.

Sisley said his mother had a difficult life and is a recovering opiate addict. He described her as a strong woman and a caring individual.

The camera belonged to Sisley’s stepfather, Sean Kelly, who worked for CNN and is now a producer for “60 Minutes.” Sisley, interested in the visual arts but not skilled in painting or drawing, said the work his stepfather did impressed him, and Sisley gained an interest in journalism.

Sisley viewed journalism as a way to impact society and help people, he said.

Sisley picked up the camera and started photographing his high school’s sports. He went into a set of woods near his house and tried to photograph nature, but neither sports photography nor nature photography appealed to him.

Sisley said often when aspiring photojournalists start, people assume they want to “be the next Ansel Adams,” an acclaimed landscape photographer.

However, Sisley said he never wanted to become the next Ansel Adams. He admired the work of photographers who documented conflict, including Eddie Adams and Nick Ut, whose photos captured the Vietnam War.

“That really stood out to me as being a way where people can influence conversation about conflict, and hopefully, through your images, you can impact people to stand up and fight for a better society, or to right the wrongs that you document,” Sisley said.

Though Sisley said he and Kelly weren’t very close during his youth, Kelly would become his first photo editor, and their journalistic pursuits brought them together.

Sisley recalled showing his stepfather his first few rolls of film, and Kelly advised him to get closer and work on his framing. Sisley said this taught him how to take criticism.

Sisley started photographing protests at the start of his sophomore year at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, the only events in Washington, D.C., he could cover without press credentials.

On Jan. 20, 2005, during former President George W. Bush’s inauguration, a group of protesters attempted to storm through an entrance intended for Secret Service access. Sisley had been following the group, known as the “black bloc,” all day, taking photos of what ensued.

Sisley got kicked and pepper-sprayed when the police apprehended the group. He called the Associated Press and offered his images from the incident — the first time he sold his photos.

Sisley, then 18, continued freelancing for Reuters and the AP while in high school. Following his high school graduation, he started working for SIPA Press, now called SIPA USA, covering the White House and Congress.

But SIPA editors told Sisley he needed to go back to school, so he looked for photojournalism programs. Sisley came to WKU because of the program’s success in the Hearst Journalism Awards Program, founded in 1960. The WKU School of Journalism & Broadcasting’s photojournalism program has won first place in the Hearst photo competition 25 of the past 30 years.

In April 2007, Sisley was contracted through SIPA by TIME Magazine to photograph the Virginia Tech University shooting in which 33 died, the deadliest school shooting in American history.

Freelancing for TIME made Sisley feel like he’d been drafted into the major leagues, he said.

However, Sisley said after three days of photographing survivors crying over the deaths of their sorority sisters, he walked into a bar and put his cameras down.

He realized he couldn’t do this kind of work for a living, he said.

“I didn’t know it before, but I knew it afterward that I wasn’t really cut out to do spot news like that,” Sisley said.

On the drive back to Bowling Green, Sisley decided he wanted to look into medicine instead. He thought it would be a more direct way of helping people.

“I wanted to have a compelling image that made people stand up and do something better for their community or for a foreign country or for a people who were oppressed,” Sisley said. “Overtime I realized that I could do more direct good, with more immediate feedback — more positive feedback — through medicine.”

A new path

Sisley enrolled in a WKU Emergency Medical Technician course but later dropped out and began working on an ambulance for the Medical Center Emergency Medical Services in Bowling Green. Through that job, Sisley learned he was capable of dealing with the outcomes of medical injuries and acting decisively in high-pressure situations.

On a June morning in 2010, Sisley received a call from his stepfather saying, “Bryan was in a car accident, and we don’t know much else.”

Bryan, Sisley’s younger brother, was driving on Interstate 81 to attend the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, when the accident occurred. Sisley said Bryan’s car flipped over close to the Virginia-Tennessee border.

Bryan died at 19 years old.

Sisley, the closest member of his family to the scene, drove there and picked up Jamie on the way. When they reached the scene, Sisley said he flashed his car’s lights and pulled over a state trooper.

Sisley told the trooper his little brother had been involved in a car accident, he was the next of kin and he needed to know if his brother was alive.

“I was on the side of the road in Tennessee when I was told by the state trooper that he had died,” Sisley said.

Sisley and Jamie went to identify their younger brother’s body in a morgue in Greene County, Tennessee. Sisley recalled the smells of blood and pine when the body bag was unzipped.

“I remember how they hadn’t done enough to present him to family,” Sisley said. “He was still covered in blood, and there was grass and pieces of pine needles all over him.”

Sisley said he’d learned in his paramedic courses the importance of letting grieving families see the body of the deceased to gain a sense of closure. Because Bryan’s body was in such poor condition, Sisley had a conversation with Jamie to decide if they should let their parents see Bryan’s body.

Sisley believed it would be in his parents’ best interest to see Bryan’s body to gain closure, so he cleaned his brother’s body himself.

“That was probably the biggest gift I was ever able to give my parents,” Sisley said.

Though Sisley had experience dealing with death as part of his job as an EMT, Jamie said he was still concerned for him.

“You can be used to something like that as a job, but to me, I thought that that might affect him in a different way,” Jamie said. “As a protective older brother, I was concerned by his decision, but my hope ultimately is that it helped provide some closure for him, and it helped a lot for our parents to see Bryan in a better place, and that’s because of Evan.”

Preparing his brother’s body to be presented to his parents taught Sisley a lot about compassion, which he would later apply to his work as an EMT, he said.

“You’re not done just because you made the decision to call a person and pronounce them dead, now the family of the deceased — they’re your patient,” Sisley said. “You need to tend to them. The emotional scars that are, or the emotional wounds that have been inflicted upon them, need to be tended to as well.”

Sisley had already enlisted in the Navy as a corpsman and wanted to deploy, but his brother’s death, which he described as a traumatic situation, served as a catalyst to his eventual deployment.

“Dealing with immediate death like that before going into conflict prepares you to be able to handle it in a different way than I think a lot of the Marines I was there with were prepared to deal with conflict,” Sisley said.

Sisley said some go into the military for the wrong reasons — whether it be to travel or for the benefits that come with the “GI Bill,” which pays for college.

Not him.

“If you’re not doing it for a purely — I don’t know — altruistic reason, then you’re going to be let down,” Sisley said. “But no matter what, if it’s just to serve your country, you’re going to do that in the process.”

Sisley quoted former President George H. W. Bush, a decorated Navy pilot, and said his enlisting was more of a “red, white and blue thing.”

Sisley said his generation was greatly impacted by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, so the ideas of patriotism and service were common.

The morning of those terrorist attacks, Sisley, a high-schooler at the time, remembered fixing the TV in his classroom just in time to see the second plane strike the World Trade Center.

Sisley recalled some of his classmates curled up in balls, crying in the hallway because their families worked at the Pentagon.

After that, “of course you’re going to do your part,” Sisley said.

Sisley was deployed twice, the first time in 2011 in Afghanistan and the second in Eastern Europe and Israel in 2012. In between deployments, he became a paramedic and received his associate’s degree from WKU.

“If there was going to be an opportunity for me to be able to go overseas with the Marine Corps and help some of those guys who became injured and help them get home in one piece, that was going to be what I wanted to do,” Sisley said.

During Sisley’s time in the military, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy was in effect. It allowed LGBTQ people to serve as long as they did not admit openly admit their sexual preferences.

“I think you make a lot of sacrifices in life, and you have to pick what’s more important to you sometimes,” Sisley said. “When I joined the military, I knew at the time that in order to serve in the capacity that I wanted to serve, I would have to go back into the closet. It was during ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I was very acutely aware that that was what was going to have to happen.”

Sisley said he had to vehemently deny his lifestyle in order to serve in combat. If he was openly gay, he would have been placed in an administrative position, he said.

The policy was discontinued while Sisley served with the Marine infantry in Afghanistan. Sisley said he was afraid of how the Marines he served with would react to him because of the media coverage at the time.

But Sisley said the Marine Corps’ motto, “Semper Fidelis,” Latin for “always faithful,” was true.

“I was in combat with these guys, and afterwards I was openly gay, and none of them cared about it,” Sisley said.

Following the policy’s discontinuation, Sisley decided he’d never hide his lifestyle choice again.

Sisley made that decision partly because he didn’t want to hide who he was but also for his current husband, who he met in 2013.

“I didn’t want him to think that I was not proud of being with him,” Sisley said. “I didn’t want him to think I was ashamed of who we are, or that it needed to be hidden, or that we needed to be sneaky about it.”

At the president’s side

After Sisley’s second deployment, he moved to Texas in 2013. He began working for the Center for Translational Injury Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

When it came time for Bush to receive medical care in his home, Sisley said Bush and his wife, former First Lady Barbara Bush, originally rejected the idea. However, around this time, Bush’s chief of staff, Jean Becker, found a news article about veterans coming out of war in Iraq and Afghanistan having problems getting jobs.

Sisely escorts the president to the funeral services for First Lady Barbara Bush on April 21, 2018. (Photo by Paul Morse)

Becker brought this to the president and first lady and said: “There’s a problem. We need to help.”

The Bushes then decided to hire student veterans, believing they would have little to do around the house and would need to fill their days with studying.

The Bushes asked a group of Navy corpsman if they wanted a side job providing medical care to the former president. Sisley was hired as a medic in 2013.

Sisley worked for the Austin-Travis County EMS in Austin, Texas in 2014. Every other weekend, he traveled to Houston to continue working for Bush.

In 2015, Bush’s personal aide at the time left Houston to work on Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. Sisley was then promoted to Bush’s personal aide.

After Sisley was hired, Becker said she started sleeping better at night because she knew he would put Bush’s care first and that Sisley was the right person the staff needed at the time, she said.

“I do believe this from the bottom of my heart,” Becker said. “I believe that George Herbert Walker Bush probably was on this earth two to three years longer than he would have been because of Evan’s excellent medical care.”

However, Sisley credited Bush’s longevity partially to the entire team of physicians who worked for them. Healthcare is an area that requires multiple people with different areas of expertise, Sisley said.

“So many things in life are too big for one person to try and accomplish on their own and nobody should be arrogant enough to think that they can handle everything without the help of others,” Sisley said.

Mrs. Bush, President Bush and Sisely on stage as the president addresses the students of Phillips Andover Academy. President Bush graduated from Andover Academy in 1942 and immediately enlisted for training to become a Navy pilot. (Photo by Neil Evans/Phillips Academy)

As Bush’s personal aide, Sisley said his primary role was to act as both a paramedic to provide emergency medical care and as a “patient advocate.” He said the entire team worked together to create the most positive outcome.

“Everybody came together and provided their role and their specialty in order to provide the best possible outcome,” Sisley said. “That’s not something I could have with my limited medical knowledge at the time — that’s not something I’d be able to do, and it would’ve been unethical for me to try.”

Above all, Sisley said Bush’s resilience was the reason he was able to live so long. Bush had a strong will to live, Sisley said.

“When he died, he was ready to die,” Sisley said. “And he died on his own (terms).”

Others always came first

Most of the lessons learned from Bush came in small ways from watching him, Sisley said.

No one doubted that Barbara Bush was the primary caregiver for the president. Sisley said Barbara Bush always had Bush’s best interests in mind, and the couple mutually supported each other throughout their lives together.

“There wasn’t a day that went by if they were in the hospital that they weren’t spending time with each other,” Sisley said.

Bush and Barbara Bush taught Sisley a lot about marriage before he was married himself, he said.

“I think they were an amazing example of partnership,” Sisley said. “There would have never been a President George H. W. Bush if there wasn’t a Barbara Bush in his life.”

After Barbara Bush died in April 2018, Sisley sat with Bush watching TV as people filed past her casket at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.

“I need to go there,” Bush told Sisley. “I need to go be there. I need to thank those people for coming.”

He was 93 years old.

“His focus when his wife was lying in a casket was to go thank the people who came out to visit her,” Sisley said. “And so, we went.”

Bush led by example in almost everything, Sisley said.

“There wasn’t a lot of advice he would give,” Sisley said. “I think when you’re in your 90s, you’re kind of out of the advice-giving business. But what I will say — if you’re paying attention — there are plenty of things to pick up.”

A lesson Sisley learned from watching Bush was to put others ahead of himself.

Bush’s grade school nickname was “Have Half,” because if he had something, he would always offer the other half to anyone around him, Sisley said.

Bush’s family didn’t suffer during the Great Depression, but his family taught him that “to much is given, much is expected,” Sisley said. This mindset is what drove Bush to public service in the first place.

“He was the type of person who would reach out to you and tell you it’s going to be OK and he’s thinking about you when you’re having the worst day of your life,” Sisley said.

That quality is something that is lost today, Sisley said.

“You can’t help but want to become a better version of yourself, which is just inspired by the legacy of public service, their commitment to this country that you’ve seen through their entire life,” Sisley said. 

The president’s last day

Bush faced death at 20 years old while serving in World War II when his plane was shot down. He told biographer Jon Meacham that at that moment, he thought he was done. He made it to safety, going on to live a full life, serving in multiple political offices and raising six children.

You never know when somebody is going to die,” Sisley said. “You can kind of come up with some ideas, but you never know. There’s no way to predict.”

The morning of Nov. 30, 2018, the former president had a large breakfast next to long-time friend, Secretary James Baker.

Baker served as Bush’s secretary of state and managed several of his campaigns, but their relationship was originally forged on the tennis courts of Houston.

“They had a very personal connection,” Sisley said. “He was capable of advising President Bush in a very honest way. That’s fairly rare in American politics, but they had such an intense friendship that went back so far that he could advise him when it was tough. He could tell him things he didn’t want to hear.”

Toward the end of Bush’s life, Baker and his wife checked on Bush almost every day.

As they spoke over breakfast, shortly before Bush died, he looked up at Baker.

“Bake,” he said. “Where we going?”

“We’re going to heaven,” Baker replied.

“Well that’s good,” Bush said. “Because that’s where I want to be.”

Sisley said he believes he comes from a generation where people don’t know a lot about Bush aside from Saturday Night Live skits and the news. He said it was an honor to serve Bush and his family, and to learn about who they were personally, not just how the media portrayed them.

“The amount of respect and how gracious they were towards me and my husband — they believe in loyalty up and loyalty down, and I think that’s something that they definitely taught me,” Sisley said.

Sisely passes his commander in chief at the president’s funeral services on Dec. 4, 2018. (Photo by Paul Morse)

The next steps

Now, Sisley has closed Bush’s office and graduated from WKU with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with a health emphasis.

Sisley laughingly said he took the most “circuitous route” to get his degree.

“I’ve been very, very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to volunteer and do things, and I had no idea how it was going to pan out,” Sisley said. “If I had taken the most direct route to an education, if I had done my four years of Western consecutively, none of these things would have happened.”

Though Sisley’s focus is medicine, he said his heart is still in photography, and his two passions are not mutually exclusive. He has plans to work in global health and document some of the issues his patients face through photography.

“Thinking that I could use photography to, you know, help this country or, you know, inspire some sort of social change from people was why I went into photojournalism in the first place,” Sisley said.

The only time Sisley had that moment was in his job working for Bush, he said.

Sisley captured a photo of “Sully,” Bush’s yellow Labrador service dog, lying in front of Bush’s casket. The image would become one of the most memorable photos from the funeral.

But for Sisley, it was never just about photography or medicine.

 It was about helping people.

“I didn’t go into medicine because I liked science,” Sisley said. “I didn’t particularly like math. I didn’t particularly enjoy physics or chemistry. I liked the ability to help people.”

Sisley’s interest in multiple different fields is what Jamie said makes him remarkable.

“He’s had so many interests over the years, and if you look at them on paper, they might not completely match up,” Jamie said. “There isn’t a lot of correlation, but if you look a little more closely, you just see how hard Evan works and how dedicated he is to learning things.”

Jamie said it’s no surprise that Sisley’s next step is medical school. He said he’s “100% confident” Sisley is going into it for the right reasons.

“I think a lot of people are going to benefit from him being a doctor, and that makes me really happy,” Jamie said.

Medical school is something Bush referred to as a “good resume builder,” when Sisley told him he was interested in pursuing it.

At the time, Sisley said he was kind of surprised that Bush said that. But Sisley was the one that didn’t quite understand what Bush meant, Sisley said.

“Eight years of serving as the vice president of the United States was a resume builder,” Sisley said. “CIA director was a resume builder. Ambassador of the United Nations — chief liaison to China. All these things were resume builders. He didn’t achieve the ultimate prize in American politics until he was in his 70s.”

The idea of capping out and not continuing to grow was a foreign concept to Bush, Sisley said.

“You don’t ever stop,” Sisley said. “You keep on going down the road. You keep on growing. You always are looking onward and upward — always moving forward. Never stopping.”

Sisley, 33, said life hasn’t always been rosy, and some may look at his past and call it dark or sad, but he doesn’t always see it that way. He always tries to learn a lesson from what happens to him.

“Life would’ve probably been easier if my mom hadn’t been an opiate addict,” Sisley said. “I would’ve loved to have seen my brother reach his 21st birthday — to be able to buy him a beer. It would have been nice not to have my friends killed in Afghanistan. But everything that’s negative that happens in life, the only way you can keep on going without getting jaded is to try and glean some sort of lesson and take it forward.”

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