Hey, it’s Anna. A few months ago, we shared stories from essential workers with you—what they were seeing on the job, how they were feeling, what they were doing to cope. Including from this listener, Sharron.
SHARRON VOICE MEMO: I am a CNA who works at a hospital in Virginia, and I'm on the front lines taking care of COVID-19 patients.
Sharron is 40 years old. She lives in northern Virginia, where she’s a single mom. Her daughter’s 13. She suffers from chronic asthma, and she told us then she was worried about going in to work every day.
SHARRON VM: If I were to get the virus, I... there is not a good outlook for me. So just getting things in order, is the only thing that's keeping me sane is knowing that if I'm not here, I've done everything possible to help the next person take care of my kid.
Since then, we’ve heard from a lot of you wondering how Sharron is doing. We’ve been thinking about her too. So I called her up last week, to find out what’s happened since she sent in that voice memo.
Sharron: Oh! Yeah, that voicemail. That was, that was a rough one.
Anna: What happened after you sent that to us?
Sharron: Um, after I sent that, I realized that I needed to take a leave from work because I understood that my mental was not right at that time. And so to go to the hospital where you're feeling overwhelmed, overworked and where you already leave feeling drowned, I couldn't, I couldn't take it much more. So I had to take a leave.
Anna: Hm. When did your leave start?
Sharron: Um, I'd say second week of April-ish around there. Yeah.
Anna: And, um, what kind of leave was it? What did you tell your, your boss?
Sharron: Um, I just, I told my boss just what I'm telling you. She, uh, I've been working at my job for three years. Um, and she understands, first of all, she knows my health issues because since I worked at the hospital, I had an asthma attack at work and had to take off, you know, different days because of, um, my breathing issues. So she knows that part. She also knows that I'm a single mom, that I'm the only caretaker. And then there was an incident where there was a woman who ended up being positive for COVID, but she, we took care of her as if she wasn't for over a couple days. And I was just like, listen, I can't do this.
Anna: Wow. That was a patient that you cared for?
Sharron: Oh yeah. That everyone on the floor cared for. And we're working with people thinking that everything's fine. And then, you know, days later it's like, "Oh, we, we, I think we have to send them upstairs." And so I just couldn't do it anymore.
Sharron: At the time. Yeah.
Anna: Have you been back to work since?
Sharron: Ugh. I was supposed to go back to this week, actually, but I had some health issues while I was on my leave and I had a couple doctor's appointments this week. So I'm starting back next week, but even that is scary because basically they're getting more, uh, COVID patients. So instead of keeping them on one floor, they're starting to bring them down to my regular floor. And they're mixing in patients who are, you know, a 90-year-old person with a UTI, with a COVID-positive patient, with a COVID-possible-positive patient, with a person who's having a surgery today, all in one. So you're a CNA and you're, you're going in one positive room coming out and going in this... it's... so it's, it's scary just to think about that even going back now, at first, it was contained to one area now it seems like it's not, so.
Anna: That is scary.
Sharron: Yeah. Yeah. So.
Anna: Do you need to go back to work next week financially?
Sharron: Oh yeah. I don't have anything left. I actually did just get, um, some food stamps that were nice. The state, in Virginia, they had some thing work with, I think it's all students who, if you, if you have children and in, um, public school in Virginia, they signed something where they gave everyone a few hundred dollars of food stamps. So that was nice. But yes, money, I have, I have to pay my bills. I got to go back to work. I can't be out anymore.
Anna: And this is a personal question, so you can decide whether or not you want to answer it, but I'm curious, like what, what is your hourly wage?
Sharron: I make about $16.40-something.
Anna: And, um, you said you had some doctor's appointments this week. Um, is it related to your asthma or what are you, what kind of health problems are you having right now?
Sharron: No, I, um, I thought I had, uh... they thought maybe something was wrong with my gallbladder. It's actually ended up finding out I have a few ulcers.
Anna: And do you believe that that's stress-related?
Sharron: Of course [laughs]. Of course, like, I mean, I think people don't realize sometimes, you know, this COVID thing is - for a CNA, for someone in my position, when someone is actively dying, a CNA, not only does compression and, and, and keeps track of what's going on and is an integral role there. When everyone else leaves and cries, and gets to kind of process, or maybe step away, we then have to go back and take off all the equipment and wash that person up, and verify who they are, and tag them, and bag them, and then put them on a gurney and wheel them down to the morgue and put them in. And so that happening as rapidly, as it was for a while, is a lot for people to deal with. But also, as CNAs, you're dealing with, you know, you might have 15 patients. And, your first room is a 28-year-old mom who has three-year-old twins who's dying of stomach cancer, and you go in there and you take the twins, come on, let's go get popsicles. And you try to get her mom and her husband out the room, and tell them, "Go ahead for a walk, I got the kids for a little bit. I got a little break." You know, then you go into the next room and it's a 19-year-old detoxing, yelling at her mom, and you're trying to give her a little inspiration and telling her, "Don't talk to your mom like that! Come on, we gotta do better." Then you go into the next room and it's a 90-year-old grandpa and his wife that he's been married to for 46 years is dying. And you tell him, "Hey, Pop! I'm here today. I've got her. Don't worry! I'm going to clean her up nice, do her hair." And then you go into the next room and it's all day long. You got to change up and make people smile. And it takes a lot of energy out of you. So it's just, it's, it's a lot. It's a lot.
Anna: Yeah, yeah. It sounds like it. Relentless.
Sharron: Drowning. I call, I say drowning. Sometimes, sometimes you leave work. You just feel like you just drowned, like, and then you got to come home and say, my daughter, like, "Hey girl, what's up? How's school? Let me see your homework," you know, and cooking, whatever is onto the next thing you gotta do, so.
Anna: What has it been like for you in these weeks when you have not been going into work, where all of a sudden your life has slowed down and it's not as relentless. What have you noticed?
Sharron: Um, some peace, sort of? I mean, obviously now the world is in turmoil, so I don't know if you'd say it's went down. It, at first, it was, it was a nice, uh, downtime sort of, but even then, um, you know, you have to get these kids, you know, get your kids together and... how, how am I paying for groceries now that we're home more and I'm not working, and I'm really on a tight budget. Or, you know, there's other kids in my area whose parents are off for 12 hours. So I'm saying, hey, what y'all doing? You know, come over here, come sit on my porch. And you know, you're looking out for other people's children and... just kind of, but I did get to, it was nice to just relax with my daughter for a while and just, um... it was hard to explaining to her why I needed the time off, but she understood, and it was a small little break that we got before... um, things started getting, um, out of control in the country that it was a little bit of peacefulness.
Anna: So what I hear you describing is like your time away from work hasn't necessarily been time off. 'Cause you're taking care of people in the neighborhood as well as your daughter.
Anna: Um, and you described it, a bit of quiet before what happened in the country. Are you talking about all the protests and, and demonstrations?
Sharron: All of the protests, yes. George, Breonna, Ahmad. All of it, all of it, yes.
Anna: Yeah. Has, have you participated in any protests?
Sharron: I haven’t. Because I'm not on social media, I guess I didn't hear about the small little protest that was in my area until after, which I was kind of upset about, but I, when I lived in Philadelphia, my daughter and I both participated when Freddie Gray, um, passed away and Trayvon Martin. So I usually am a protester, but it's kind of super far for me to get to a protest and I feel like they're getting a little bit more peaceful now. So maybe I would like to go and bring my daughter because she does remember. We have pictures and she remembers being out there protesting and she wants to go. You know, it's hard. It's, it's a difficult decision.
Anna: Yeah. Has watching the news and taking in the protests and thinking about what the conversation is in the country right now about justice and injustice, um, has it made you think differently about your work?
Sharron: Um, I think yes and no, I think. Um. The racism that goes on in healthcare, it's very prevalent when you work there. You can see it every day from how different people are treated from the doctors, from the nurses. Um, but also it's made me want to stay. It's scared me to make me want to change, but also to make me want to stay because I can be a change. Um, but you know, you're, it's. I don't know, I'm really torn. I'm very torn. I, I always want, have wanted to work in healthcare. I love helping people. That's definitely who I am, but it's hard when it comes at the price of, you know, your, um, mental health, which has never really been an issue for me, or I at least never thought it was. And now it's like, I'm all over the place. And, um, so just very uncertain. And so that is, uh, damaging in itself because when you feel stable, uh, for most of your life, and now it's sort of like, what the hell is going on? Um, am I going to completely leave what I do? Am I going to stay? And I don't know.
Sharron: And the under compensation of it also, that you feel like you're working, like, uh, just working yourself crazy to barely be able to make it still. I mean, when I first started, uh, a long time ago, um, in my, I, uh, in Connecticut, I went to a high school where they offered a CNA program for three credits. So I could graduate a little bit early, I just took the CNA course not thinking I would actually ever use it. And then I think I was making $11 an hour at like, 19 or 20. And that was great in 19, in 2000, you know what I mean? 2000, for a 20-year-old. And you know, some even went up to like $13, if I worked on the weekends or shift differential. And now to only be a few dollars ahead of that, but having a whole other person, and a whole life, it's just, you know, it's, it's not easy.
Anna: Yeah. Have you felt angry recently?
Sharron: Uh, I don't know when there hasn't been a time that I haven't, haven't been angry recently, it seems like. Uh, just angry with our, the progress that hasn't happened in the world. Also, my best friend, his anniversary of the police killing him yesterday.
Anna: Oh. Your best friend was killed by law enforcement?
Sharron: Yeah. They just reacted to a black man and shot him. He was actually shot in the back and, um, so, yeah, so angry. Yes. Just wondering, when are things going to change? Angry for having to have these repeated conversations with my daughter, angry for not having the answers for her? Um, angry... that I don't know what I can do to help. I'm broke and I'm still donating $10 here, $5 here, $8 here, just because I, uh, you just feel compelled to, even though I have nothing, but I feel like I gotta do something. Um, angry that it might not be enough once again.
Anna: It's insufficient, but I, I want to say, I'm sorry for your loss.
Sharron: Yeah, it was, that, that broke me down. That was, that's something that's hard to deal with every year on his birthday and you know, the day he died, but, um, it's, he was such a dynamic person that I am thankful that I got all the years I did with him. Just a good, like I'm fat. And so, I wouldn't go shopping with my friends, mainly like, you know, I'd buy accessories or something, but him I'd be like, come on, I got to go in Lane Bryant real quick, you know?
Sharron: And he'd be like, okay, what size do you wear? Like, you know, he was just, uh, he didn't really like, he was, that was my friend. So, he didn't really care. Like, "Just tell me what size you are and come on so we can get out of here!" or whatever. So that something I remember specifically about him.
Anna: I love that.
Sharron: Yeah. I know, I know.
Coming up, how Sharron is getting ready to go back into work at the hospital.
We recently asked you all what you need to say right now, during this time of protest and reckoning with police brutality and the impacts of structural racism. We put out an episode featuring some of what you told us, called "This Has Been A Long Time Coming." If you missed it, go back and take a listen.
The episode mostly featured voices of black listeners, and we got a lot of responses to it. A listener named Sandra, who is black, told us, "Every single one of the speakers mentioned every single one of the feelings that course through me."
A listener named Tony, who self identifies as a "56-year-old conservative white dude," wrote in about thinking through what he would do if he saw a police officer harming someone. Before seeing the killing of George Floyd, Tony said he likely wouldn’t have physically intervened. "I’d decided to be a good witness," he wrote, adding, "Well, that’s obviously out the window now. That’s not good enough any more, and I’m still trying to figure things out."
And Rachael, a listener in Montreal, shared some thoughts with us too.
Rachael: Over the years, I’ve had to learn to kind of keep a lid on how I’m feeling with regards to race relations. There’s like this way that people’s eyes kind of glaze over when I realize I’m like talking too much about it. And now, overnight, my inbox is full of messages from people, close and not so close, asking me how I’m doing in light of the recent events and, to be honest, it really annoys me. They are, like, a day late and a dollar short, in my opinion.
On the next episode, I talk with people affected by a different aspect of the criminal justice system: prisons. Including a woman whose husband is currently incarcerated in New York. She tells me what it’s like to wait for his calls right now.
Dana: I don't let go of my phone. It could be at any moment. There's no set time. There are no rules. So I live with my phone. Everywhere I go.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Anna: How do you think you'll feel when you head out the door to go back to work next week?
Sharron: Whew. Well, I have an hour commute to my job, so...
Anna: That’s a lot of thinking time.
Sharron: Too much, too much thinking time. Um, yeah, I know I'm going to cry. I know I'm going to tense up. Um, and then I know I'm going to see my first patient and get right back on autopilot mode, and make it be all about them. Cause that's what I'm there for, really, is to heal them and get them back home safely and healthy. So, walking in will be, uh, hard, but as soon as I see my first patient, it'll be back to go mode.
Anna: It seems to me, I don't work in healthcare, it seems we're in such a strange moment in terms of how the greater public is thinking about the risk level right now.
Anna: Do you feel like going back to work in June that you are at lower risk of coronavirus infection than you were in April? Or do you feel like you are worried that people are becoming less vigilant?
Sharron: Yes. I'm worried that people are becoming less vigilant. I actually, sometimes I think to myself, I wish I would have stayed at work a little bit because people were actually social distancing in the early part. And for the CNAs that still work there that I talk to, they're still like, girl, it's getting worse. Like, the doctors, when you see doctors saying, well, let's just have, uh, a voice conference or a FaceTime conference with the patients who are in the hospital 'cause they don't want to go into the rooms. It's like...[laughs] but, but the aides still -
Anna: But you do.
Sharron: Of course! If they need a shower, we have to give them a shower. If they need water, we have to give them water. So I, I don't know though, I'm not there, but it doesn't seem like it has gotten better.
Anna: When you, when you sent that message in late March, you talked about the, what you wanted to make sure, um, was written down for your daughter in case something happened to you.
Sharron: Yeah. I've stopped writing as many letters, but I still find myself, uh, jotting down different things. Like, you know, um, we had a really good, funny conversation the other day in the car, and before I went to bed, I just jotted down about the conversation and how, you know, every day she’s shocking me and blah, blah, blah. Just, I wrote something sweet to her, just in case. You never know. My, my asthma isn't going anywhere. My, my, uh, health conditions aren't going anywhere, so, still worried about getting COVID. You, I mean, you just, it's, it's, it's, uh, it's rough for me with my asthma. It's still, it's still high risk for me specifically.
Anna: Does your daughter know you're doing that?
Sharron: No. She would, no, she's very sensitive. So she would, uh, she would be, it would, I couldn't, I wouldn't do that to her. She doesn't need to, she, you know, black children deal with enough. That's just something else she doesn't need to deal with.
Anna: You want to protect her from what you're afraid of.
Sharron: Oh, of course. I didn't even really want to talk to her about, uh, everything that was kind of going on, because we live in such a rural area. You know, I felt I could, um, keep her from it for a little bit, but she's on TikTok or one of those - Snapchat or something, and she actually seen, um, the police with his knee on the neck. And then wanted to find out what that was about and researched it herself, and I heard her crying and I'm like, what are you doing? And she's like, "I just watched that guy die!" And I was just like, oh my god. And I told her, please don't watch things like that. That's not the kind of trauma you need to hold in you. And if you wanted to ask questions, just ask me. And I would have told her, but I would rather have not had her watch it. Um, yeah, but she, um, you know, she, she's a kid in America.
Anna: Will she be home alone when you go back to work?
Sharron: Yeah. Mhmm. Yep.
Anna: Is she looking forward to that?
Sharron: [Laughs] No, she will FaceTime me 32 times a day for no reason. "Mom, I just bumped my head as I was walking down the stairs." "I am at work. You can't just FaceTime me for random things!"
Anna: And I'm curious, like, when you think - you, you, you said, just to go back, you said you know, you're sort of in this stew, this mix of sort of wondering about if you're doing the right work, if this is the thing you want to do. And um, when you think about like, yeah, when you think about like a year from now, or a couple of years from now, what would feel really good to be getting up in the morning and doing, what do you picture?
Sharron: Uh, it would feel good to get up and be going to school, to be improving my life. I know that, um, for a lot of people, and then in this time that we live in, school, you know, people can make millions without attending school, but I definitely want to stay in some form of healthcare. And, in order to do that, I have to go to school. Um, and so it would be good to, in the next year or two, to be getting up and maybe in completion of some sort of class that I want to take, or, which I'm uncertain of too. I always wanted to be a nurse, forever. And now I'm thinking, I don't know, that's what I want to do. Some of the happiest people at my hospital are, um, the people, the two ladies who do, um... anyways, they scan your brain. Um, so, so neuro imaging techs?
Sharron: Something like that. Um, they are probably the happiest people in my hospital though. Their work is definitely challenging, but I think they get to go in and help and kind of leave the situation.
Anna: Hm. What would that, do you know what that would involve? To get that training?
Sharron: Uh, yes, that would involve me going back to school, getting, um, my associates'. You know, I haven't looked deeply into what I want because, mmm - I would like to change that also, right? Because they say, uh, dream, dream and it should come true, right? So I want to look into it more. So maybe those things will happen for me, but for me, I try not to, because of just makes the situation worse. If I can't do it, I feel like if I know exactly what I have to do, but I still can't do it, then it makes it harder than kind of being like, "I don't know. I don't know how to get to the, get from A to Z," instead of knowing, and then being like, I can't pay for it. So, doesn’t matter if I can go or not, if I can't pay for it, then yeah. Then I just can't do it, so.
Anna: It sounds like though, Sharron, that you very much, you kinda know what you want. Um, but, what I hear you saying is like, it's, you're not sure it's good for you to say it out loud, 'cause you're not sure you can make it, you're not sure it can happen.
Anna: Yeah. I really love talking to you.
Sharron: [Laughs] I like talking to you too, ugh! Yeah. It's, it's a lot. It's it's, it's nice to talk sometimes. Just get the stuff out, you know? But, you also don't want to burden other people. Everyone is going through so much stuff. Just it's, you know, so many people are going through so much that, um, you know, I find myself with my friends, um, being like, "Hey, is everyone okay? Just checking in." You know, we'll all say, yeah, yeah, everyone's good, but it's kind of surface. And we just kinda let it go a little bit, which is weird for my friend group. But, um, I, I think it's kind of, I have, I have really good white girlfriends in my friend group too. And I don't think that they would ever say anything weird about the situation, but I'm kind of staying away also so that just in case I don't have to look at them a different way. Which isn't good, but I don't think it would ever happen, but at the same time...
Anna: Oh, it might.
Sharron: I know, but...ugh! My gosh, I know. I know.
Anna: I hear what you're saying. I hear what you're saying that, like, everybody is dealing with a lot right now, and it can be hard to, to make space to talk about what you're going through without feeling like you're burdening others.
Sharron: And I don't kind of want to listen to them either. Like I'm not gonna lie!
Anna: I hear that! You don't want another taxing conversation? I got it.
Sharron: Let me not lie. It's just me. Listen, I kind of don't want to hear your problems right now either! Like I can't take another, I can't take it! Like so I just, you know, I'm good.
Anna: I know. Well, here's, let me ask you this. Um, I'm picturing, I'm picturing what it's going to be like when you get back in your car at the end of your first shift back.
Anna: When you have that hour drive and you have that time by yourself. Um, I wonder if we could just talk about what might, what kind of music you might turn on, what you think you will do when you're driving home, when you have that space and you don't have to think about what you need and you can just think about what you need.
Sharron: Um, I will definitely, I am a grown-ass woman who loves hip-hop and rap. And so, you know, I will turn on something loud and something with lots of curse words.
Anna: Yeah, like what, like, tell me what, what's the song like when you really need it?
Sharron: You know what? I will turn on The Lox, Jadakiss, probably "We Gonna Make It."
Sharron: That's my song that I go to. When I moved from Connecticut to Philadelphia with like a hundred dollars in my pocket, me and my friend, "We gon' make it, we gon' make it." So that's what I usually play when I need to make it. And, um, and I will blast that probably like six times on my way home, and then I'll put on some Mary J. and smooth it out a little bit. [Laughs] And just maybe buy a bottle on the way home from work, a bottle of something and get home. And that first night I'm definitely probably having a drink and, uh, and just, and, and I get in my car first, before any music, before anything. And I say, thank you, Father, for letting me get through this day. Thank you for, um, you know, hopefully no one died that day, I might thank him for that. Um, thank you for letting me release. Thank you for letting me get in this car. Thank you for about to getting me home safely. And then the music starts…quickly. [Laughs] Quickly.
That’s Sharron, a certified nursing assistant in Virginia. Her first day back was on Monday, a 12-hour shift, and she did listen to Jadakiss on her way home.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.