Nurse in mask like that of sister of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley
Family & Friends

Front Lines

My sister Lindsay is an ER nurse. And let me just state the obvious: Right now is not an easy time to be an ER nurse.

The other day, she called as she was leaving work, clearly exhausted. She lives on the West Coast and works the night shift, so we usually talk when it’s mid-morning for me and she’s traveling home. I asked her about how things were going and we discussed how hard her shifts had become, how they were making tough decisions about testing or not testing potential cases of COVID-19, and the shortage of masks. Lindsay doesn’t sugar coat things, and she acknowledged that without the personal protective equipment she needed, she was likely to be exposed to the virus. She didn’t ever question whether she’d continue to go to work. She was worried about bringing it home to her husband and baby.

But that wasn’t the thing that was really stressing her out. She’d been to the grocery store just before her shift and told me that the shelves were almost bare. “They ran out of formula,” she said. What was she supposed to feed her daughter?

My sister had exclusively nursed her baby for many months. But the stress of pumping at work through this crisis was one of the major factors that led her to switch to formula. Her daughter was not yet old enough for cow’s milk.

I told her we would find a solution. I’d get some here and get it shipped to her, or call all the stores in her area to find out who had some, or figure out who had it online. It would be okay.

But it really upset me. First, we’re talking about my sister and my niece here, so it’s personal. But also, if we want to take a larger look at this, we’re talking about a front-line health care worker who had to go into her shift stressed about getting food for her child. I’m not even talking about all the stressors she faced actually doing her job. I’m just talking about how shortages are affecting her before she even starts that job.

When I reflected on it later, I realized that Lindsay hadn’t complained at all about the lack of masks or overwhelming numbers of people showing up at the hospital. She had just stated those issues as fact. She acknowledged that the work was stressful, but she didn’t complain about the growing problems she faced in doing her job.

Because she’s like that. She has never been one to whine, even when we were children. My dad is the same way, and I think when we were children, he saw a kindred spirit in my sister: kind-hearted and stubborn, without a minute to spare for complaining.

I am not like this at all (for evidence, see much of this blog!) but I learned as a child that I was not to whine about minor medical issues. “You’ll be fine,” was my dad’s favorite line to me growing up. And I almost always was. (As a note, this is probably why I had a baby on my living room floor. I didn’t want to overreact.)

But even though Lindsay won’t really complain about her increasingly difficult job, it’s obvious that the stress is there. I know it’s not just there for her, but for all of the health care workers and first responders and others who are working the front lines, trying to stop the spread of this virus. They are leaving their own families and coming to work – as nurses and doctors and EMTs – knowing that they are potentially exposing themselves, but doing it anyway. Listen, it’s not easy to be online teaching while also trying to parent three kids on my own who need their own home school lessons. It’s not easy to be the only adult in my house. It’s not easy to face this fear alone.

But I don’t fear for my life when I do my job. Instead, I turn on my computer and teach about the governmental structures of developing nations to a sea of teenage faces on my screen. My kids have way too much screen time, but I’m not worried that my daily work will lead to them getting the virus. Yes, the stress I face is real. But every conversation with my sister reminds me to be grateful for the people who are making it possible for my family to remain safe.

So that day – the one when I talked to my sister and she couldn’t find any formula – I felt really stressed. (Let’s be clear, I’ve been at a high level of stress since this all began, but it was even more heightened that day.) I couldn’t really leave my house with my kids, so I spent the in-between moments searching for affordable formula online. I put “call Vegas stores” on my to-do list for that night.

And then, in the early evening, I got a text from my sister.

“A very nice neighbor just gave me formula!” she wrote. “How cool is that?”

I almost started crying right there. No, there was nothing this neighbor could do to replenish the dwindling supply of masks at Lindsay’s hospital. But this neighbor had extra formula, and she knew that shortages meant people were going without. So she posted on a neighborhood list serve, and when Lindsay responded, this neighbor gladly shared. In fact, she gave the formula to my sister for free. “There are so many people who have shown real humanity through all of this,” I texted Lindsay, and she agreed.

Every day, my sister shares her skills and knowledge and compassion with others, most of whom are strangers. But she isn’t a lone wolf. She does it alongside thousands of other front-line health care workers, many of whom are risking their lives every day.

I’m not sure how to best support them all. But I think there are simple things we can do. Drop off extra masks at your local hospital, if you’ve been keeping them in your basement. Send notes of encouragement or donations of money to groups who can help these workers. Stay home to reduce the spread of disease.

Or maybe you know a health care worker, one who pulls the night shift without adequate protective equipment, and comes home to a sweet baby who fills her days with joy. Maybe you can help her out, in a simple but vital way.

If there’s ever been a time to share, it is now. With her. With them.