The Volunteer

At her new home office, my mom prepares to fight coronavirus on the front lines.

By Nina Joss
Written April 7, 2020


Since Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced stay-at-home orders in Michigan on March 24, I have spent most of my nights watching a captivating heist-themed television show with my dad, brother and sister.

My mom has spent most of her nights studying.

As a nurse at a hospital in southeastern Michigan, she spent the past two weeks preparing to be called in to work with COVID-19 patients. Like many hospitals in the country, hers has been working overtime to reformat its staffing in order to accommodate the overwhelming number of patients infected with the virus.

At the time of this writing, Michigan ranks third in the number of both cases and deaths, behind only New York and New Jersey, according to Bridge Magazine. The state Department of Health and Human Services reported 1,749 new cases today, bringing the state’s total up to 18,970 confirmed cases of the virus. The death toll is at 845, focused in the epicenter of Metro-Detroit, where 80% of the state’s cases are concentrated.

The second she realized the enormity of this crisis, my mom raised her hand to work on the front lines—meaning she could be called in at any moment.

Although her current job as a specialty clinic nurse does not involve working hands-on with patients, my mom knows her way around an intensive care unit. “I started in the ICU,” she said. “People on ventilators was what I dealt with constantly.” That was years ago, but the need today is greater than ever.

“I volunteered and I want to do this. I want to prove to myself that, at age 51, I can get in there and make a difference—like, bedside, really make a difference,” she said as she checked her email for staffing updates from last week.

Since she began working from home on March 18, she has trained herself with a level of steadfast dedication that, even as a student at a rigorous university, I have only ever witnessed from my mother.

At her new home office (our kitchen table, now with two computer monitors, a keyboard, a mouse, a mousepad and a rolling desk chair) she spends all day advising her patients on the phone, checking lab and procedure data, analyzing symptoms and communicating with doctors. After business hours, she uses her evenings to watch training videos, take online tests and read up on the latest procedures and information about caring for patients with COVID-19.

Day after day, she prepares tirelessly. She watches the news morning and evening, trying to keep up with the enemy’s tactics as it spreads across the nation. She is getting ready for battle.

On Friday, our family dinner conversation was peppered with new facts about the disease and how exactly it affects the body.

On Saturday, the new scrubs she’d ordered were delivered to my house.

And on Sunday, my mom’s boss told her that she was not getting called in. At least not yet.

“That was not a good day,” she said. “I was so disappointed.”

Her most urgent concern, of course, was for patients infected with coronavirus, but also for the healthcare workers who take care of them. Some are older and more vulnerable to the virus themselves. Others have family members with underlying conditions such as immunosuppression or asthma.

“I hear a lot of those stories,” my mom said. “They’re genuinely concerned that if I get this, it could hurt me or my loved ones.'”

“I especially have a place in my heart for moms—young moms. They’re being called in to serve and to take care of [COVID] patients. Two of my friends who got called in have little kids at home. And my thought is always to send people in who don’t have kids, who aren’t gonna bring sickness home to them.”

Long hours at the hospital, away from family, also take their toll.

“I talked to my friend who got called in the other day and she’s having just a horrible time with it. She feels guilty. She feels guilty for her husband, that he has to pull the weight at home. She feels guilty for leaving her kids.”

My mom knows she has less to lose than many of her colleagues.

“For me, it would be a lot easier going in. I wouldn’t feel guilty. I wouldn’t be concerned about my kids or my husband. You’re all able to support yourselves.”

However, my mom struggles with a sense of guilt for another reason. As she sees healthcare workers in Detroit, around the nation and around the world being forced to work at hospitals that are overflowing with COVID patients, she feels privileged to be working at an institution that is not desperate for her help.

“We’re taking the overflow from other hospitals that are more overwhelmed—so we are helping, we are reaching out to our community,” she acknowledged. “But we’re not being hit like the inner city is, like Detroit is. And I have a sense of guilt about that, especially not being called to the front line.”

The hospital’s decision-making process on who to call in and who to leave with their regular patients is not completely clear, but my mom thinks it is based upon how recently a nurse has worked in intensive care. Admitting that her experience is a little outdated, she “just wishes she had the skills to be the person on the front lines” instead of her friends. She wishes for the chance to use the strengths she has developed during her nursing career to “help patients spiritually” as some of them face the end of their lives.

At this writing, the numbers of cases and deaths from coronavirus are still rising at an alarming rate in Michigan and across the U.S. Yet during the worst public health crisis of her lifetime, my mom finds reasons for hope.

“If I look closely, I can find goodness from this pandemic. I see our strength and goodness come together during this time as we honor, respect, and support others in our community, our country, our world by following the precautions to flatten the curve and try to keep this virus from ruining too many lives.”

“As frustrated as I am that I’m not getting called in, I totally understand it and I am proud to work for my hospital,” she said. “It also makes me see the strength of our teams and the commitment to people’s wellness.”

Even faced with a global pandemic, “they’re still doing it.”

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