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Applying the pressure to defeat a global pandemic as a medical worker isn’t easy work.

Their muscles are aching. Minds are fried. And our healthcare heroes are still grinding through half-day – if not longer – shifts as they help us stay alive and healthy in multiple ways despite some folks deciding to party like its 2019.

As singer/song writer Heather Chelan said, “The pandemic isn’t over just because you’re over it.”

Add being Black to this scenario and you’ll find yourself navigating an industry whose racist past made Black and brown people more vulnerable to the virus in the first place. *sips tea* Just keeping it real, y’all.

For those who are dealing with all *looks around* this, we want to express our thanks by sending you a message of rest and joy. If you have healthcare workers in your family or friend circles, consider forwarding this email to them.

– Starr

A birthday bash in Barbados

The chaos of COVID-19 can’t touch the mind of registered nurse Erica Smith.

Physically she works in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Jackson, Miss. But when things go down, Smith’s mind drifts back to when she was chilling with her boo in Barbados. She imagines awakening and going to sleep to the sound of the ocean waves at their beach house. She did feel guilty at first for the three weeks she took off during a public health crisis. But she pushed through it and decided to put herself first as she celebrated her 30th birthday on the island.

“I thought about it like – and I don’t mean any harm – but if I dropped dead in the next minute, they will have an ad on Indeed by tomorrow,” Smith said. “A lot of times in healthcare, they try to guilt nurses by saying, ‘Oh, we need you. These patients need you. We need staff.’  But that’s vacation time I’ve earned, and I have every right to take it.”

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t like her patients. Her love of taking care of people hangs like a family heirloom around her heart.

While she grew up in St. Louis, her mother moved her family down to the Magnolia State to take care of her grandmother who was diagnosed with cancer. Her grandmother sterilized surgical equipment for more than 30 years and Smith’s mother now plans activities for patients at a Hazlehurst, Miss hospital.

But the pandemic put her in a weird space. Smith was working in the emergency room when the first COVID-19 cases started creeping in. She was dealing with unruly patients who refused to wear masks as they coughed in her face and wailed about the coronavirus being a hoax. She decided to quarantine herself from her family because her mother was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. She would make a week’s worth of food for her mom and leave it on her front porch to lower the risks of contamination.

“Not only did I have a responsibility to the community to take care of people, but I also had a responsibility to shield my family from COVID,” she said. “Imagine going months without hugging your mom or any of your family because you’re afraid you will accidently give it to them.”

One of the reasons why Smith transferred to the ICU is because patients are required to be tested before hitting her floor. But as patients filled the beds, she had to learn to adjust to the emotional labor. She started to feel the signs of nurses’ burnout, the physical and emotional exhaustion medical professionals feel due to long, stressful hours and other factors. Some of the signs of nurse burnout include:

  • Loss of appetite or sleep
  • Feeling apathetic about helping others
  • Feeling dread, depression or anxiety about work

While in nursing school, Smith said there was a section of her book about relieving burnout by taking a self-care day or switching into another part of the medical field or connecting with friends and coworkers.

“Nothing in that section could have prepared us for COVID-19, just to be honest,” Smith said. “But it did hit the basics. Basically, it said take care of yourself.  You can’t be an advocate for health and you’re not exemplifying that yourself.”

Stepping into Barbados was stepping into a whole new world where protecting your neighbor from the pandemic is engrained into the culture. Barbados doesn’t play games when it comes to its strict COVID-19 rules for travelers, which includes taking two vaccine tests whether you are vaccinated or not. Sanitizing your hands and social distancing was a must when you walked in any store or restaurant. Wearing a mask below your nose was a no-no and no one objected against the rules.

The lack of bickering and bulked up safety protocols allowed Smith to have fun in the sun while accepting the warm love of her boyfriend’s family and friends, who live in Barbados. On her birthday on Aug. 5, her boyfriend’s family surprised her with a birthday cake AND a birthday cheesecake. Smith said she felt like she had a whole different mindset when she went back to work after returning from vacation on Aug. 8. – right as the delta variant caused cases to spike again.

But this time, Smith didn’t start a new wave of COVID-19 cases drained.

“(The trip) helped me to be mentally stronger,” Smith said. “I was able to get rest so I came back feeling rejuvenated.”

Her reserves quickly dwindled as Mississippi healthcare system hustled to keep up with the pandemic. More than 20 hospitals were left without ICU beds by mid-August, when the new wave peaked. Officials struggled to fill staffing shortages. This time they struggled with staffing shortages.

As cases started to slowly creep down, Smith said the ugly signs of burnout started to rear its head again. You know what Smith said?

“It was time to plan another trip,” Smith laughed.

This time a much shorter, weekend getaway to a black-owned winery in Napa Valley with a couple of her Black coworkers and her boyfriend.

“I’m an advocate for taking breaks. When the pandemic first hit, I was working a lot of extra days and was trying to get the bonuses. You know, get that extra pay,” she said. “This time around, I want all eight days off because I’m putting my mental health first.”

Joy is where you are

Now, you may not have the funds or the time to hop on the road and find paradise. So, I hit up Fredrick Richardson, a 32-year-old registered nurse known as a positive force at Madison Hospital in north Alabama. But even Richardson had to adjust his coping skills after transferring from the emergency department to the COVID-19 unit.

Richardson thought about his own journey of navigating nurse burnout and gave me some insight on how nurses and other medical professionals can find joy right where they are:

  • Find a song in your heart: Richardson loves himself some ol’ school spirituals and thinking about  how enslaved people found hope through song. As he watches documentaries to learn more about slavery, he thinks it’s ironic that he also finds himself singing when things get tense.  His playlist ranges from Maroon 5 to Kevin Gates.“I don’t think I’m the best singer. But it’s soothing for me, it was soothing for my patients and it was soothing for my colleagues,” Richardson said. “When you hear songs from Queen, you just imagine singing a Queen song in the middle of a big trauma or emergency, and everybody starts joining in on it. We’re just like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do this. We’re saving lives and we’re trying to have a good attitude about it.’”
  • Find a hobby that brings you joy: You know that old project you put to the side? Dust it off, my friend and pick it back up again. Wanna master a new craft? Take a chance and give it a go. Richardson has been experimenting with video editing for the Alabama State Nursing Association. He recently made a video that highlighted the heroes behind the masks.“ A hobby is something you can do and time flies and you wouldn’t even realize it,” Richardson said. “You start doing it at 12 noon, and you realize at 6pm like, ‘Oh my gosh. Man, I’m having such a fabulous time.’”

How to give healthcare workers a helping hand

Turn to your neighbor and say, “We all in this together.”

You may not be in the medical field. But there are things that you can do to pump up the joy in your medical friends’ lives. Here are some tips from both me and Dr. Lindsey Harris, who became the first Black president of the Alabama State Nursing Association last year:

  • Tip #1: Open your purses and wallets. Because of how this pandemic is set up, healthcare professionals, especially those on the more critical side, barely have time to get a bite to eat. Send them some coins so they can pick up something when they are off the clock.
  • Tip #2: Be a nurse advocate: That looks like monitoring any laws that will improve your state’s healthcare system, following your local nurse association, an organization that serves as the voice of nurses in your state, and contacting your legislators about the importance of improving your state’s healthcare.
  • Tip #3: If you see a nurse, thank a nurse. With nurses being on the frontlines, some giving the ultimate sacrifice (I.e. their lives) to take care of our patients, we need to show them our appreciation.
  • Tip #4: Get masked and get vaxed: There are concerns about cases picking back up again as people start to gather for football season. Now would be a good time to make another round of calls to ask people to get vaccinated if they haven’t already and to stay masked up!

Y’all stay well and keep spreading the Black joy! See ya’ next week!