Essential, or Expendable?

The trauma of having to work while everyone else is staying home in the midst of a global pandemic, and what it’s doing to my mental health.

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Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

I work in a nursing home located in what rapidly became the county with the fastest infection rate of coronavirus cases in all of New York State: St. Lawrence County. A county that also happens to be the most rural part of the state as well as one of the poorest, entirely unprepared for what lies just around the corner as this deadly virus continues to spread. While I do have my nurses’ aide certification and assist with direct care of my residents, my job for the past two years has primarily been working in the activities department in both skilled nursing units as well as the assisted living wing of the facility. Now I’m sure some who read this might be thinking: activities aide? Essential? Really?

My responsibility is the mental health and activity level of all 140 or so residents in the middle of a rapidly spreading global pandemic that has kept them from seeing their loved ones, many of whom don’t understand why their families have stopped coming to see them or why they must stand outside at the windows when they do.

Yes, I am essential.

But with each passing day I would be lying if I said it wasn’t getting more and more difficult to keep up the energy and enthusiasm I once had for this job, for a wide variety of reasons associated with everything that’s going on. I know it is only a matter of time before this virus enters the facility. Every single morning when I wake up and get ready for work, I wonder if that day will be the day. They call me essential but I can’t help feeling as though that is only temporary until things get bad, even though deep down I know when the time comes and the outbreak hits the facility, there is at least a good chance because of my certification that I will be told I’m going to have to work the floor if I want to keep my job. They call me essential, but I have never felt more vulnerable, unprotected, and expendable.

Every night at least twice I wake up with a rapidly beating heart and the overwhelming urge to vomit that I fight back by turning on Netflix, in a last ditch effort to keep my mind from going to the places I know it inevitably will. I don’t know what scares me more at this point: the thought of waking up to a voicemail saying I no longer have a job to go to at a moment when it finally felt like things were falling in to place, or the thought of still having that job to go to. Being responsible for the mental health and wellbeing of my residents at a time when mine feels so fragile has only gotten more and more difficult, and I can’t help thinking about the notion that you cannot pour from an empty cup.

Someway, somehow, I’m still managing to.

My residents are my second family. They have taught me more about myself than I ever would have learned had I not been given the opportunity to take care of and get to know them, and it’s not a stretch by any means that they’re the only thing really getting me through this. Just the other day I held my residents shaking hands as she closed her eyes while I read from the daily devotional, picking the birthdays of each of her children and her late husband to read especially for her. It was only a week ago that her neighbor with dementia reached out, grabbed my hand and held it until I knelt down beside her, burying her head in my shoulder for close to twenty minutes. A gesture so out of character for her that the nurse determined he should take her vitals. As broken as I feel, I owe it to them to give it everything I have. They need all of us, but I am incredibly conscious of the fact that this need is putting everyone living and working inside that building at risk.

I am terrified. It continues to sink in even further that as a whole, we are all being subjected to trauma on an unprecedented scale. What else should I call it when the act of simply stepping outside my apartment puts myself and everyone I interact with at risk, but at the moment I have no choice? What else should I call it when at the very least, another 16 million people have just lost their health insurance after being laid off or fired from their jobs? It gets more and more difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and adapt to the changes each new day brings during these unprecedented times. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to process what’s happening in the middle of living it. I’ve got no choice but to continue to do everything I can to keep my residents and myself safe, and do my best to stop thinking about everything I cannot change or control.

Easier said than done.

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Lauren is a writer & leftist with analysis on topics related to politics & policy. She can be reached at or Twitter @xlauren_mx

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