This is the third in a series of stories from AL.com reflecting on the 1 year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic in Alabama. Every day before March 13th we will raise the voices of those affected.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested healthcare workers like no other.
Over the past year, Alabama’s healers have faced a melting pot of dying patients, long shifts, limited equipment, makeshift intensive care units, and overcrowded vaccination sites. While the masses don’t wear a mask, some are still joking about the virus, and armchair experts were convinced they found out more than the entire medical / scientific community.
Then, when the day’s dying efforts are over, many return to children struggling with the virtual school, partners who lead them through difficult times, and extended families they haven’t seen in months, and always fear that they might spread the same virus that they work so hard to struggle with.
“I felt like in the worst case scenario I was going into battle every day,” said Dr. Elizabeth Marshall-Smith, Chief Operations Officer for the Pinnacle Physician Group in Tuscaloosa. “I could possibly get sick, I could bring it home to my family. It’s hard to manage. I value my children and my husband. “
For the more than 10,000 Alabamians who have died of COVID – and thousands of other patients who came close – health care workers in full personal protective armor were the patients’ only connections to the outside world thanks to visiting restrictions.
“With no visitors in attendance for COVID-positive patients, patients and families trust me, a complete stranger, to care for them during the most critical time of their lives,” said the intensive care nurse and Fairhope-born Rebekah Roe.
It takes a toll.
“There were times when I was extremely sad,” said Kristopher Haskins, nurse manager for the COVID-19 division at USA Health University Hospital in Mobile. “I’ve seen people die while their families could only watch over social media platforms, health professionals burst into tears, and society lost trust in one another and in their political leaders.”
They are often hailed as heroes for their endeavors, but some have also spoken of being involuntarily drawn into the political conflicts and conspiracy theories of the day as the pandemic raged on.
“A national medical emergency has become a political issue,” said Felicia Sanders, occupational therapy assistant at UAB. “Wearing a mask meant that. Not wearing a mask meant that. Coronavirus has nothing to do with politics and has killed so many people.
“But a lot of people didn’t care because they thought it was a joke.”
Even those who weren’t at the forefront of the COVID units felt the strain as their everyday lives were turned upside down just like the rest of us.
“I was overwhelmed by the blurred lines between work and home. I felt like a failed mother struggling to raise three children at home, build a home training room, and try to stay COVID-free,” said Dr. Leesha Ellis-Cox, a psychiatrist in Hoover.
Health workers have also had to miss out on personal triumphs and tragedies, births and funerals, family reunions and holidays.
“I lost several loved ones,” said Janel A. Lowman, associate public relations manager at the USA Health Michell Cancer Institute in Mobile. “And in those times it was particularly difficult for family members not to be able to mourn together because of the pandemic.”
Teri Killough, a 20-year-old newborn nurse from Odenville, had to wait outside when her daughter gave birth to her first grandchild.
“I couldn’t be in the hospital with my daughter and son-in-law, but I had a great tailgate party in the parking lot,” said Killough.
Many described a feeling of gratitude for the things that were not taken away.
“It makes you so grateful for life,” said Dr. Richard Menger, a surgeon in Mobile who was posted to New York City with the Navy Reserve during the early months of the pandemic. “It affected my day-to-day interactions. Those little problems aren’t really problems.”
Brooke Olson, a registered nurse at the USA Health Children’s and Women’s Hospital in Mobile, said she was proud to see her staff stand up to the pandemic.
“Of all the emotions that were experienced during the pandemic, I am most proud,” said Olson. “I take pride in bringing my employees and the community together to come up with new ideas to address the challenges posed by the pandemic. I’ve seen nurses praying over their staff, the congregation praying over the local hospitals on cell phones during the lights, and nurses stepping out of their comfort zones to help when needed. “
And Olson and many others are optimistic that better days are ahead.
“I believe that as a bone heals stronger than it did before it was broken, we will weather this pandemic with a new strength and resilience,” said Olson.
You can read the stories of these and other health care workers affected by the pandemic in the following posts:
Fireman Ben Thompson: COVID gave “a better understanding of what protects us”
Felicia Sanders, Healthcare Professional: “I still meet people who think (COVID) is a joke.”
Nurse Brooke Olson: We’ll get through COVID with “new strength and resilience”.
Dr. Elizabeth Marshall-Smith on COVID: “It was like going into battle every day.”
Janel Lowman, Community Outreach Manager: COVID has started an emotional roller coaster ride.
Dr. Amy Thompson “hopeful but frustrated” during COVID
Newborn nurse, grandmother Teri Killough on COVID: “I miss hugs”
Dr. Leesha Ellis-Cox decides to find the light even in the middle of COVID
Rebeckah Roe, ICU Travel Nurse: Teaching COVID will change us for the better.
Sister Jill Stone: “The pandemic made me feel exhausted.”
Nurse Manager Kristopher Haskins: COVID brought sadness, “moments of utter awe”
Surgeon Richard Menger: When I saw the COVID deaths in New York, I was “grateful for life”.
Professor Errol Crook: The unequal effects of COVID create a sense of urgency.
Nurse Anaesthesiologist Katherine Thompson: COVID “worrisome … so what’s next?”
To see all the stories of Alabamians Affected by COVID, click here.