At Proactive Risk Management, we thought we’d take a few moments to shine a light on the unsung heroes who have kept the world running throughout the Coronavirus pandemic while the rest of us have been able to remain safely at home. Deemed, “essential workers,” and without accolade, these people put themselves at risk every day so that we don’t have to.
The Pandemic’s Unsung Heroes – Hospice Caregivers
“You matter because of who you are. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.”
– Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the first modern hospice
Death, as they say, is inevitable. Since the dawn of time, environmental factors and disease have shaped the course of human existence and evolution. But as the world was cast into chaos by a virus that nobody saw coming last year, even death now holds uncertainties.
The coronavirus, or COVID-19, is a virus that nobody understands. It came from seemingly nowhere but has ravaged humanity across the globe and drastically altered life as we knew it. While most of the world’s economies closed down and citizens of even the most liberal democracies were ordered to stay home, there are those deemed “essential workers” and cast into the frontlines of the pandemic to keep the world operating on at least some basic level.
While many of these frontline workers are publicly acknowledged in the mainstream media, there are those who silently don their surgical masks and latex gloves, and instead of attempting to save lives, help ease the most vulnerable populations through their final days and into death.
Without the benefit of a robust support network for themselves, and often for meager wages, hospice workers worldwide remain devoted to their dying patients. No, there’s no hazard pay or extra incentive for them – only the knowledge that they are somehow providing some semblance of comfort to those in the final stage of life.
One such hospice worker has agreed to share her experience and thoughts about the current pandemic and how her life has changed both personally and professionally. Meet Ms. Mamie Letterlough, a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) and dedicated hospice home health aide from North Carolina, USA.
Unlike many workers during this crisis, Ms. Letterlough doesn’t get to telecommute. She must face the pandemic head-on. Driving down the empty streets at dawn to dimly lit homes during quarantine orders, one can’t help but imagine a post-apocalyptic scenario. And yet, while doing so, she mentally prepares herself to greet her clients each day with a smile from behind her double-stacked medical masks and a compliment.
“Hello beautiful,” is a common salutation to her aging ladies, and while rousing a dementia-stricken person is no easy task, Mamie is often rewarded with a smile or at least some sense of recognition. She doesn’t let her patients see how the fear of contracting the virus herself lingers in the back of her mind. You see, Ms. Letterlough has two children at home. One, a severe asthmatic, and the other just a toddler. In a different dynamic, her personal life also revolves around caring for an extremely vulnerable population.
In most medical settings, there are assurances. Sterile, climate-controlled environments where personal protective equipment (PPE) and medications abound. Highly contagious patients are quarantined, and visitation with them is limited to a very select audience. But the act of walking into the homes of multiple terminally ill and actively dying patients each day lends itself to a considerable amount of ambiguity, to say the least.
Mamie is, by nature, a very nurturing person. Often giving extra hugs to her patients to provide emotional support and comfort before the pandemic, she must now limit the amount of physical contact she has with her wards outside of the menial tasks she must perform. Gently but efficiently changing soiled diapers and linens, bathing, grooming, and sprinkling in words of encouragement is now all she can offer. Where once Ms. Letterlough could linger and chat, she must now exercise restraint and limit the duration of her client visits.
Attempting to strike a balance between dignified palliative care and time-constrained efficiency has proven to be hectic and strenuous on many levels. The added challenges of wearing extra PPE also takes a physical toll – just imagine trying to breathe normally through two medical masks in a hot, steamy shower while bathing an uncooperative wheelchair-bound patient.
Mamie also struggles to provide meaningful human interaction and contact to those who most need it when she can no longer provide a shoulder to cry on or a simple hug to let her patients know they are not alone in their journey toward death.
Further adding to the stress of an often-thankless job, the fear of possibly being an asymptomatic carrier of the virus and spreading it to her clients or family weighs heavily on her. In fact, where she once allowed friends and family to visit her home at their discretion, she has now closed her home off from visitation altogether. Not knowing where her guests might have been or what they could have been exposed to is a risk she’s not willing to take with her children and ultimately, her clients.
And speaking of risk aversion, fearing virus spread from infected hospice workers, many of her clients have also decided to restrict access to their homes. This means a reduction in her caseload that further translates into fewer hours worked and, finally, a significant decrease in pay. So, despite the risks she is willing to undertake, and the knowledge that she has job security, Mamie is still forced to endure financial hardship as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite it all, she continues to smile behind her two masks – the smile visible to her patients only through the twinkle in her eyes. She focuses on the positive aspects and points out, “I have been able to spend more quality time with my family as a whole.”
And when asked if life as we know it will ever return to normal, she answers in earnest, “I can’t actually provide that answer. All I can say is I hope and pray we can return back to a normal version of our life.”