After an unthinkable year, essential workers look to the future
By JANE Latus
We put out our heart lawn signs, we clanged pots and pans from our windows, we gave generous tips to our grocery deliverers, we sewed masks. And we wondered of those essential workers, how do they do it?
Well, we asked them, and it turns out the answer is: it’s been hard. But ultimately, what’s getting them through is each other, and their passion for their work.
We asked teachers, nursing home staff, medical workers, funeral directors, food growers, and more: What keeps you going and showing up to work, day in and day out, during these challenging times? And what are you hopeful about in 2021?
We heard about doctors sleeping outside in tents, or if they were lucky, a borrowed RV, to avoid infecting their families. From teachers whose jobs now heavily include managing students’ stress. From a nurse who described work as “a war zone.” From people who swallowed their personal fear of COVID in order to do their jobs. From funeral directors who risked their health carrying the dead out of hospitals and nursing homes, over and over, at a rate unlike they’ve ever seen. From people who tried to take the place of the families that aren’t allowed to visit. We heard of “lives turned upside down.”
Many say they now feel fortunate to have received a vaccination. And when looking toward the future, most use the same word to describe their dream: a return to “normalcy.”
But let them speak for themselves.
Maria Ellis, MD
Partner, Woodland Women’s Health Associates
Women’s Health Connecticut, Hartford
What keeps me going is watching my co-workers taking care of everybody else. I’ve had colleagues worry about bringing this infection home to their families and their kids. In fact, I have watched them lose their family members yet still come back to work to care for everyone else’s loved ones.
I have watched the creative ways we have cared for each other: the hospital made it easier for us to buy staples on our way home from our shifts, the Hilton lit up their windows with inspiring lights for us to see on our tough trips back into the city. My gym family brought me masks and goggles and made gear to protect our ears from the constant pressure of the elastic headbands; one sent her construction worker husband to the front door of the hospital to donate his own N95 masks. Folks met me on the highway, at my home, at the gym, anywhere I could get to, so they could give me food or supplies to bring into the hospital.
When we couldn’t get enough of our own PPE, the OR staff saved precious wrapping material for us to bring to volunteers who would sew it into masks to be distributed back to healthcare workers. These sewing volunteers would make both pickups and drop-offs so that we could use every moment outside of the hospital to rest and sleep. People donated tents and campers and RVs so medical staff could at least sleep in their own driveways, even if they couldn’t go inside to hug their kids. When we learned enough about this scourge, we changed scrubs at the hospital – but we still undress in our garages and driveways so we can shower first instead of bringing germs into our homes.
Restaurant owners and workers who couldn’t feed their own families made sure to provide meals and sustenance for us. Most people in our community wore masks to protect each other, and this prevention of infection eased our daily workload.
I am relieved to have been vaccinated. I want to spend more time with my 83-year-old mom, and I cannot wait for her to be vaccinated also. When she was my age, she had three kids and three jobs, and thanks to her, I have this one job that I love. I want to ease her isolation and relieve the fears she has about the state of our country and the damage this pandemic is causing.
Lisa Tyndall, BSN, RN
Interim Nurse Manager, Emergency Department
Saint Francis Hospital
Some days I have to ask myself this very question [what keeps me going]. I’ve been a nurse for 35 years. I never imagined I would be working during a global pandemic. What makes me come in, day in and day out – it’s the team that I work with. My mentors as well as the incredible nurses, techs, secretaries, and doctors that also come back, day in and day out. This pandemic has altered the lives of everyone – physically, emotionally, financially – in a multitude of ways. Many lives have been turned upside down. I come back to try to help in whatever way I can.
I am hopeful that we will be able to return to some semblance of normalcy. I don’t think it will ever return the way it was, but we need to continue to try to slow the spread by continuing with vaccinations and all the necessary precautions we have in place. I am hopeful for the rejuvenation of the economy, and people’s faith in humanity and kindness to one another. Without these key elements of life in place, staff across all avenues, patients and families potentially will remain in crisis survival mode rather than moving towards recovery and personal growth and healing.
CNA and nursing student
Soldiers’ Home, Holyoke
I like helping people and, working in long-term care, I get the best opportunity to do that. I take care of elderly, disabled veterans so it’s a nice way of giving back to those who helped bring the world to where it is now. We had a major COVID outbreak toward the beginning of the pandemic, but we’ve come a long way since then, and it’s really my duty to continue helping my vets and making sure they’re safe.
I’m hopeful that in 2021, people will take precautions to protect themselves and the people around them. I’m hopeful that the vaccine will be distributed more efficiently in the near future and we see a big change in the fight against this pandemic. It would be nice if the world can start reopening by summer but, obviously, we need to be safe now for a better future for all of us.
Teacher, Introduction to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Central Connecticut State University AND Customer Service Associate at The Home Depot
For the class I teach, I show up for my students. I know that none of this transition has felt natural or easy. I know that many of them have been dealing with the pandemic and quarantine as best they can, and I also know that a lot of my students are struggling. When my students come to class, I know I have to be there for them. I do everything I can to make things easier, from changing due dates to allowing re-dos to helping them talk out their ideas. I show up because I care about them, and I want them to succeed.
I also work at The Home Depot, and I show up and keep going because I honestly love my job. Helping somebody pick out the right lightbulb or order the product they need for their project makes their life a little easier, and I think now more than ever, we could all use that kind of kindness. Helping people, whether they’re students or customers, is what the world needs right now, and I’m honored to do my part.
I hope that 2021 will see the general end of the pandemic and a release from quarantine, and I hope that once we’re all able to go out and see each other again, the “absence makes the heart grow fonder” adage will be true. I hope the joy of freedom will bring people closer together and allow us to appreciate our friends and family and everyone else more. I hope that when we can go outside whenever we want, we appreciate the environment and what’s around us. I hope we can learn to forgive. And I hope, after the seemingly endless stream of difficulties in 2020, that this year will be a year of compassion.
Occupational Therapy Assistant
Litchfield Woods Health Care Center
What kept me going through the pandemic was the support of my loved ones, friends, and colleagues. Most importantly, the patients. The pandemic unfortunately took a toll on many people, whether it was mentally, medically, or physically. Every day, my colleagues battled the fear of COVID to give the patients what they needed, whether it was skilled nursing, emotional support, or skilled therapy services. It was a war zone, to say the least. The number one goal was to take care of the patients however they needed it at that moment. The days seemed long and drawn out, but there was a purpose to our work. COVID-19 made me appreciate life more. I always valued my job, colleagues, and loved ones; but this time it was more of an eye opener.
I am hopeful for 2021 with the start of the vaccine. I have been fortunate to be a recipient in hopes of being part of the cause to end this dreaded virus.
Director, Cremation Society of Connecticut
What keeps me going and showing up to work is my community. They need us right now and we cannot let them down. I am honored to serve families during such a difficult time.
I am hopeful that the death rate will go down and that our neighbors and loved ones will not be ripped from us by such a violent virus. I am hopeful that we won’t have to hide in our homes anymore. I miss my family and friends.
ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) Specialist/Teacher
Hamden Public Schools
The truth is, we can never return to life as it used to be before this pandemic. As an ESOL specialist/teacher in Hamden Public Schools, I was fortunate to find multiple ways of reaching my students and families, and the results have been very rewarding. It’s important to keep families’ strengths in mind at all times. As an ELL (English Language Learner) educator, I was able to help and support by providing and building community outreach family nights in our district and by building family relationships and providing supports where they were needed.
The depths of commitment and sacrifice that our ELL families have gone through in our community on behalf of their children, the extraordinary measures they are taking to keep their families safe during the pandemic, and their courage in the face of great diversity, has been remarkable. As an English learner myself, coming from Brazil at the age of 9, I see myself in a lot of my students and their families. This is what kept me going and showing up to work, day in and out, during these challenging times.
I’m hopeful that in 2021, we will take and apply the lessons learned last year and build a stronger future for our children and our communities. More than ever, we now understand the rewards of remote learning, while still appreciating the need for in-person human interaction that will always be part of our education system. I am hopeful we could begin to assemble parents, students, educators, legislators, and local policymakers to create a new vision and new goals for Connecticut educational systems. This is the time to rethink how we educate our children. Students learn in school environments that value the richness of diverse perspectives that cultivate cross-cultural knowledge and awareness. I’m so happy that I get to be part of this next movement towards continued progress in education.
Siri Daulaire, MD
Middlesex Health Emergency Department
I went to medical school because it is important to me to help people, even when it’s challenging – sometimes especially when it’s challenging. (That’s why I work in the emergency room.) It’s a field of medicine where we have always had the privilege of transmuting a person or family’s worst moment into one of healing and compassion.
Even in 2020, I was still able to hold on to those moments where the doctor-patient relationship is a mutual one – a shared laugh at me being unable to get out of my PPE gown, rolled eyes at the masks we’re all forced to wear, or even shared tears over a loved one who I may not be able to help. Every time I make the choice to go to work, I do it knowing that I will find a human connection. That connection is the thing that keeps me in health care during this pandemic more than anything else.
This past year and the lockdown also brought our family quarantine chickens and a new rescue dog, and the joy in our home is the foundation that gets me up every morning, even when I’m feeling afraid and overwhelmed.
The first week of 2021 brought my second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. As I write this, I am 95 percent immune, though my N95 and face shield aren’t going anywhere any time soon. While I can’t say I feel “safe,” I certainly feel safer than I have for the last 10 months.
I am hopeful for a data-driven national public health policy that can actually roll out these vaccines across the country in an equitable way.
William Remington, RN
Anchor Health Initiative
My patients keep me going. It’s been a difficult year for everyone, but I believe if we stick together, we can make it through. I’m hopeful that the vaccines have a great success rate, and we can begin transitioning back to some type of normalcy.
Pick Your Own and Creamery Supervisor
Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford
When it comes to working at Bishop’s, there are many things that keep me going and showing up to work during these trying times. Besides getting to work with many friends who have quickly become family, the thing that keeps me going most is being able to provide a sense of normalcy for people and their families. Whether it’s out at Pick Your Own or on the patio outside of the Creamery, being able to put a smile on people’s faces, regardless of everything currently going on in the world, makes it all worth it. This past year has come with all sorts of challenges that have affected everyone in different ways, so if I can help someone forget about everything else going on, even for just a few minutes, it makes everything worth it.
In 2021, I am hopeful that the world will begin healing. I hope normalcy can return for some, although for many that is not possible. I’m hopeful for unity in our country, as well as progress towards racial equality, gender equality, and equal rights for all.
Christopher Adams, RN
Anchor Health Initiative
It’s not easy showing up to work over and over again, as our nation and our healthcare providers are overwhelmed with the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the grim reality of the challenges we continue to face, there are countless individuals who continue to need care and support. We tend to see a majority of LGBTQ+ patients at our clinic. This population is already filled with lots of medical distrust and a lack of safe spaces to receive adequate and competent healthcare. Now, more than ever, our clinic is such an important resource to those who may not be able to seek healthcare otherwise. Lastly, there is an incredible amount of disinformation and misinformation surrounding COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccine. It is so important for patients to be able to come to us for factual, evidence-based information.
I am hopeful about many things in 2021. I am hopeful that our vaccine rollout will increase and help us return to some form of normalcy before the year end. I am hopeful for meaningful changes to start dismantling the building blocks of systemic and institutional racism. I am hopeful that our government will take meaningful action to address all the crises facing the nation, in an equitable and just fashion.
Baker, ShopRite of Canton
Speaker on Trans Rights and LGBTQ Sexual Health
What keeps me going every day is seeing my co-workers and regular customers, because they’re like my family. Also, that we’re making not just food, but good food that makes people happy. This is honestly a really fun place to work. This isn’t just a job for me; I love every moment, even the stressful ones. Working in the bakery is another form of creating art to me, art that people will love to both see and eat.
My hope for 2021 is that we are going to see necessary changes, both politically and socially. I personally want to see more progress in terms of trans rights and protections. I also want to see more accountability and transparency in public officials, everyone from politicians to police.
Anne Rajotte, RN
NICU Saint Francis Hospital
As the COVID-19 pandemic completes its first trip around the sun and the globe, the challenges of healthcare continue to be at the forefront of the news and our lives. As healthcare providers, it has been a year of physical and emotional demands that we have never experienced. We, as humans, have been tested in ways that we never thought imaginable. Social beings by nature, we have been forced into a lengthy, and seemingly unending period of separation. The only places that seem to have maintained an attendance level of “standing room only” are hospitals. Because of this, we, as healthcare providers, have been called to the frontlines. Yes, we “signed up” for this job. However, no one could have anticipated this extreme level of need and stress.
Yet, we continue to come to work each and every day. For the past year, most adult ICU and adult medical/surgical floor staff have come to work both exhausted and overwhelmed, yet they continue to come to persevere. I have been blessed to have worked in the Women and Infants’ Division of Saint Francis Hospital for 20 years, the last 15 in the Neonatal ICU. With regard to the pandemic, the NICU has (mostly) been within a protected bubble. Throughout the month of April, I was one of the RNs who helped out by working in the (non-COVID) adult ICU. It was an eye-opening, awe-inspiring experience. That month infused me with an energy to continue to serve our central Connecticut community in an unprecedented way.
Many of those adult ICU patients were intubated, and unable to communicate. For various reasons, they were among the sickest of the sick, and they all received EQUAL levels of care. Without family members present, the staff became their caregivers and their family members, merged into one. Regardless of gender, race, color, creed, or sexual orientation, each patient was treated with equal levels of dignity and respect. And we, as a healthcare team, worked as a well-oiled unit, regardless of our personal and professional backgrounds. And within each department of Saint Francis Hospital, we continue to do so.
As we embark on 2021, we can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, at first slow out of the gates, has gained momentum. The new presidential administration has focused its efforts on ramping-up both production and distribution of the vaccines, and that gives me hope that I have not felt in the past year-plus. Having already been one of the fortunate ones to have received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine, I am looking forward to reconnecting with friends and family.
This past year has challenged all families with physical and emotional struggles on unprecedented levels. Simple things that we once took for granted will be possible again: handshakes and hugs, dining indoors at homes and restaurants. For me, my “family” includes both my blood relatives, and my other relatives within the LGBTQ community. Oh, how my girlfriend of eight years and I miss sitting at Tisane Cafe on Farmington Avenue [in Hartford], surrounded by members of the LGBTQ community! I greatly miss and very much look forward to that level of comfort that results from sitting in a familiar setting among the people we love and respect.