FAITH AND HONESTY IN THE FACE OF A PANDEMIC
We are in the middle of a global pandemic. These are words we certainly never imagined we’d be saying, let alone a reality the entire world would be experiencing in 2020, but here we are. Six or seven weeks into a lockdown (depending on who you ask), we are humbled by the state of affairs and, if you are reading the news, scrolling through social media, or even having conversations with the outside world, you, like many millions around the world, are humbled by the incredible efforts of essential workers who have to face this virus head on.
Globally, healthcare systems are under-prepared to deal with a threat of this size, and the healthcare workers have been dropped right on the frontlines with no vivid picture of what it is they are up against; not enough ammo to adequately attack the threat; no real avenue to cope with the sudden and seismic shift and no real understanding of when things may return to normal, assuming they ever do. Above all, they have no real time to even process the bulk of the questions they have. Every second is crunch time. There’s no time to ponder, let alone rest.
REGINA ASKIA-WILLIAMS, former Nollywood Screen Queen, is now a healthcare professional – a Family Nurse Practitioner – in New York, noted as the epicentre of the Coronavirus. At the time of this interview, New York City has reported 165,000 cases, 12,774 deaths and 36,300 recovered. These stats are staggering for so many reasons, chief amongst which is the pressure it places on the healthcare professionals who are tasked with managing it all, plus their own health of mind and body. In this interview, Sonia Irabor, spoke with Askia-Williams about her experiences within this new reality, the changing demands of her job, the changing dynamic with her family as a healthcare professional who comes in daily contact with the virus, coping mechanisms and more.
First things first, how are you?
I’m doing alright. As a healthcare professional, especially [one who has an ashmatic kid], I worried so much about what I could possibly bring home.
How did you and your family adjust in response to the virus?
Naturally there was concern, then questioning. A killer virus? This one with a time span of four days to a week. Questions like how to keep the kids safe. Thankfully, schools closed. We began stocking up on food for the family, stocking up on kitchen table therapies: Lemon, ginger, garlic, steam vapour treatment, Vitamin C, zinc, a variety of soups, menthols, cough medicines, lozenges, Tylenol, thermometres…
I had to plan a regimen: Take everyone’s temperatures every morning.
Be on alert for symptoms such as a fever or sore throat. Everyday we have Sorrel tea or lemongrass tea with ginger and lemon. Everyday we have soups, spiced hot with seasoning. We have an abundance of water, especially with lemon flavour.
My kids got proactive too. They designed a regimen where I had to come through the garage from work. They would spritz everything down with bleach, then I would bag my scrubs and proceed to the shower, before I was allowed to join the family.
With my husband it was a little tricky because these are closer quarters. Were we going to get busy [with our] masks on? That didn’t happen. I guess this is what they meant by for better or worse. We were careful with all the prescribed social etiquette, except social distancing.
What’s the current situation in New York City?
In New York City, which has become the epicentre of this disease, with America surpassing China, Italy and Spain in terms of new infections, it has been a few weeks of terrifying uncertainties. Thankfully daily updates say numbers of deaths are decreasing, hospital admissions and infection rates trending down.
Testing centres are opening up [and] drives for blood donations from Covid survivors [are] in full gear for use in dying patients instead of ventilators. Local manufacturers have been commissioned to mass produce personal protective equipment. Ventilators are available, new hospital beds are available to whoever needs to be admitted. New York is not out of the woods yet, but we are on our way to standing strong once again.
There was no time to prepare for what has become the new reality. How did you adjust to the sudden spike in emergencies and patient in-flow?
We were all [educated] on what was known about the virus; its mode of transmission and how to protect ourselves. We were trained immediately on how to wear our Personal Protective Equipment [PPE] to protect ourselves.
The difficulty was that the story on the characteristics of the virus kept changing and we had to keep up with adjustments to our gear. That was very frustrating. There was [also] the shortages of Personal Protective Equipment [PPE].
The state government did provide a ton of social media campaigning on social etiquette to help break transmission and infection. Social distancing, hand washing, hand sanitiser use, wearing a face mask… This has not totally flattened the curve for us, [meaning that the [rate] of transmission will go down, the health care systems will not be overwhelmed by a teeming number of sick people and have limited resources to care for them]. We see admissions and new infections are trending down. The other states, which are recording an increase in numbers of Covid-19 patients, need to follow the NYC model.
States such as Michigan, Florida seem to be doing the exact opposite of following that model. They are already looking to relax lockdown rules and reopen aspects of their society. What are your thoughts on that?
This issue is a disaster waiting to happen because of the peculiar characteristics of their communities. Michigan has a high number of [people of colour] and with poor access to health care services, they suffer the burden of pre-existing conditions. This then predisposes them to the ravages of a Covid-19 infection. Florida is essentially a retirement community. People retire to their homes in Florida. There is a high number of older Americans who live there. Older age is a predisposing factor. The nursing homes are being decimated by the virus. It’s a scary thought. Unless they take the Covid-19 social etiquette seriously, we are in for a wild ride in Michigan and Florida.
There’s a lot of concern surrounding how healthcare professionals the world over are being treated – lack of adequate PPE in quite a number of areas, for example. What’s been your experience in that regard?
This has been another worrisome issue because we all have families that we go back to. Covid-19 is a tenuous condition to manage and you can’t do that when you have high anxiety of possibly contracting the disease yourself. Donning and removal of PPE in between patients exposes you to infections. You worry if the mask and PPE are really protecting you.
I’ve spoken to a few healthcare professionals who talked candidly about their experiences with patients in the wake of this virus. Do you mind sharing your own experience?
We are often in an enclosed space with [sick] patients, who are coughing, [with] oxygen levels dropping. You turn them on their stomachs, you put them on a 100 percent non-rebreather. When that doesn’t work you call for high flow, when that doesn’t work you consult for ICU. With those who signed a DNI/DNR, you start a morphine drip and organise a [online video conferencing] Zoom meet with the family, so they can say their goodbyes. The Covid patient dies the loneliest death. No family, no loved ones by their side. You hold your patient’s hands and comfort them as they pass. Then you go to the bathroom and cry. The nurses are going to need therapy sessions to help with PTSD after this.
How do you manage your own mental health in the midst of everything that’s going on?
First and foremost, I pray. I commit myself, my day, my patients, my colleagues to God and to the blessing of the universe. In the face of all the confusion, in the face of high anxiety and fear, especially as some colleagues have died, my faith keeps me grounded. I trust that God is merciful and his will will always be done. I don’t hold back tears anymore. I allow myself to cry, let it out.
Each time I lose a patient, as I hold their hand, I say a prayer. I thank God for the gift they were to the world, I pray he comforts them with his peace. That helps me [too]. I have seen too many deaths and that bothers me. Soon as this is over, I will book a consult for therapy.
There is still so much about the virus that many do not understand. How have you and your colleagues managed something this new and alien?
Yes indeed, doctors are discovering something every day. We nurses are noticing something every day. The first early signs of infection include not being able to taste and smell. Another sign that is indicative of severity is cutaneous symptoms, [such as] redness around the eyes, we call that the “Covid eye”. The chest X-rays are dramatically bilateral: Pneumonia is usually the left lower lobe so this has led some scientists to believe that a systemic reaction (body reacting to infection), rather than pneumonia, is responsible. They believe the virus [could be] destroying the red blood cells’ ability to store and circulate oxygen, starving the body of this very much needed molecule. They then propose that treatment patterns should be to restore this with a blood transfusion instead of putting people on ventilators which far too many die on. When we are discharging survivors, we all clap and jubilate and wish them well. It’s so good to see them give the victory sign and say thank you.
Can you give us a glimpse into what your new normal looks like? At the hospital and at home.
I take every recommended precaution, take a deep breath and go to war. I make sure I take all my meds as stated above, and eat healthy meals. Your immune system fortification is so important. This is why I will continue with Soup-A-Stars, our cooking competition to promote healthy nutrition. I ensure I am on top of my PPE because I know any mistake can transport a rogue virus home. We will continue with the heightened hygiene as we should.
Natural foods from here on. Focus will be boosting the immune system because this is not the first pandemic virus neither will it be the last. We have to be prepared. This is my new normal.
Did you at any point have to be isolated from your family? If so, what was that experience like for you?
It’s amazing that after almost two months, God has kept me. No fever, no headache. May we continue to enjoy his grace and mercy. Amen.
What are some of the most important things you do on your few days off?
I’m so tempted to mention some grand scheme but I’ll be honest, I mostly sleep. I can’t help it after such gruelling hours on the unit. I work as both Nurse Practitioner [NP] and Registered Nurse [RN]. Most outpatients are closed and we mostly telehealth now. My busiest role is the 12-hour days on the unit as RN. I love to write and enjoy time with the kids. I plan for relief packages, plan Soup-A-Stars, read up on SIL and do interviews.
As someone who sees the true effects of this virus on the community on an almost-daily, what is one common misconception about this virus that you wish people understood?
The biggest misconception is that “It’s just another type of flu”.
If you ever had the flu, multiply that severity by 100. It’s no joke. Please stay on top of your social distancing, hand hygiene, and boost your immune system. It’s no joke.
In the US, UK and Canada as well as many other countries, there have been weekly community-wide applause breaks as a way to encourage medical professionals. This has been met with a wide range of opinions. Some express gratitude, some feel it’s unnecessary as it doesn’t do much to solve the very real challenges many professionals are facing. How do you feel about it?
We will take anything offered because the recognition, the care, the love and appreciation shown are such morale boosters for us. Our hospitals too are doubling up on the PPE and we currently have what we need.
The only bothersome thing now is the politics some people are trying to introduce into this. The conspiracy theories, unclear vaccination proposals, false positive test results, especially for people who have at some point had the flu shot. It’s bothersome when it comes across like human lives are expendable in the face of the need to advance some political agenda. This is a terrible impression to let out especially at times like these.
You still continue to bring joy to many on social media, engaging with fans, doing some fun Instagram challenges, and now more than ever, that feels very important. How do you unwind?
I really enjoy spending time with my children – both the ones I birthed and ones I adopted. My children don’t fail to point out how “old school “ [I am] and try their best to show me how to lay on the swag. Sometimes I get it, sometimes I don’t and they have a good laugh and give up.
When I mixed up “Don’t Rush and Bop Daddy, I got an immediate update from my adopted son, “Mommy please they are different.”
They are still teaching me Instagram and cringe in horror when I forget to use the filters which I call e-botox. I say, “If Grandma looks like she does at 88, I’m still gon’ be a fine woman with all my wrinkles, jowls, rolls and folds come 90, by God’s grace.” Yes, this isolation has helped us rediscover each other, laugh together, reach out to each other via social media. Please let’s continue to commune, let’s not let Covid steal our joy. It has caused the world so many tears already, there is no space for more .
What is one message of optimism that you are holding dear through these unprecedented times?
“This too will pass”
“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
May God keep us all safe in his care. Amen.
Love and Light.
Cover Illustration by O.A Mariam
Family photos/Selfies courtesy of Regina Askia