Welcome to the first of many Covid Pandemic Interviews! I am so happy to introduce my sister in law’s sister, my brother’s sister in law, and my friend, Shelby. I know you will love her and be in awe of her story.
Before the Storm:
In December 2019, Shelby and her husband Mark returned to live in their home state of Oklahoma after a short chapter on the east coast. They were drawn home by family, numerous small town Oklahoma festivals, and the superior Tex Mex food culture here (amen). An experienced cardiac step-down nurse, Shelby began work in one of Oklahoma’s largest hospitals on January 6th, 2020. She worked in the Intensive Care Unit, unaware that within weeks she and her team would be at the eye of the storm.
By early February, 2020, Shelby had heard of the novel corona virus but not experienced it firsthand. Testing was expensive, scarce, and mostly being done for patients who had recently been overseas.
The last normal feeling thing Shelby remembers doing was eating at Ted’s Escondido, enjoying one of those much anticipated Tex Mex dinners she just couldn’t find on the east coast. Soon after, cases in Oklahoma started to rise and the hospitals filled up with very sick people. On an otherwise normal Monday at work, in early March 2020, she said everything felt different. She and her team were assembled and instructed to wear both surgical and N-95 masks at all times, a behavior which suggested that they themselves might be contagious. This seized her attention. The fear of spreading the virus from hospital patients to loved ones at home was forefront, so Shelby immediately chose to self-isolate, spending more than a month sleeping in the living room, separated from Mark and keeping her hospital clothes apart from his, just in case.
Shelby worked at a hospital where patients from around the state were transferred, when smaller hospitals could not treat them. She described their atmosphere as one of extreme caution, since the virus was so new and so many questions were being raised every day. “The science was unfolding before our eyes,” she said, and they were “learning as they go.” Before long, they were at 110% capacity, with 38% of those patients very sick with Covid-19. People were dying horrible deaths, PPE was being conserved, and the doctors and nurses were scrambling to learn enough to effectively battle the new enemy. The hospital was overrun and understaffed, and growing more so as lucrative travel team jobs lured nurses away to even harder hit states. Shelby chose to stay, both to be near her family and because she already felt invested in her team and mission.
Prior to the covid-19 pandemic, Shelby was a nurse in the cardiac step down unit and was happy there. But her initiation into ICU just a few weeks before such an exceptional time in history seems almost predestined. In the midst of so many horrors and so much uncertainty, she found deep purpose in caring for the extremely sick and called it “an honor” to hold the hands of so many who would not survive the virus. She and her teammates at the hospital, her “work soul mates” as she affectionately called them, made sure no one ever died alone. Shelby was among the nurses we have seen on television who used Zoom and iPads on wheels to help loved ones say goodbye.
One of the difficult realities of the hospital being so overrun was that chaplains on staff could not often see dying patients. For this reason, Shelby and her team were frequently tasked with providing more than medical care. She was put in a unique position to minister to people in their final hours and moments. She always asked, “Would you like me to pray?” And, she said, they always accepted. No patient ever told her no.
For those patients who recovered, left the ICU, and were eventually discharged, Shelby and her team celebrated. She said it was a victory they shared together, because they all cared so deeply for the people entrusted to them. They loved and prayed for everyone.
While acknowledging that ICU burnout is prevalent and a real concern, she does not foresee a career change anytime soon, and not only because covid numbers are finally improving. The environment of deeply caring for one or two patients seems to fit her personality. She finds herself thinking about them all the time, praying for them, becoming invested in their stories. Shelby is unabashed about her faith, too. She said, “He gets me, He sees me,” and credits God and prayer for helping her do the needed work and thrive in such a hard year.
Connection, Self Care & the Vaccine:
The horror stories ramped up, and Oklahoma’s infection rate swelled again and again as we approached first summer then winter. Long, exhausting hours at work were balanced with tentative, masked, outdoor visits with her parents and sometimes with her sister and nephews, who were visiting Oklahoma before moving overseas. This warm, gregarious, affectionate family had a hard time not hugging. They sufficed with small patio gatherings and lots of extra phone calls. She said it was so hard to “pump the brakes” when spending time with them, difficult to resist the urge to hold or comfort a toddler, to comfort each other. But seeing what she saw every day at work, it was ultimately an easy choice.
Self isolation took many forms, and Shelby always kept her parents’ health and safety in focus. She stepped in to do the grocery shopping for them, eliminating the temptation to eat in restaurants. She and Mark found a rhythm with their safety protocols at home and also learned a new love language which told him when she might need to cuddle after work and when she might need to be alone with her feelings. Or with a pizza. Besides pizza, Shelby’s pandemic stress snack of choice was Triscuits with pimiento cheese dip, particularly the ones with either smoked gouda or jalapenos.
Socializing simply could not happen. All their hopes and plans to reunite with Oklahoma friends have been tabled this past year, and they watched as one by one the small town festivals were cancelled.
Neither Shelby nor her husband Mark, nor their adult daughter Boston, who is a restaurant manager in Ada and faced constant exposure and a complicated, ever shifting work life, nor Shelby’s parents, ever contracted the virus. It’s easy to imagine how thankful they all are to have survived the year without serious illness or worse.
There was a long stretch last year when, though physically healthy, Shelby found it difficult to concentrate long enough to read books (a common phenomenon in pandemic, I am learning). Instead, she listened to audio books, favoring mysteries and gothic romances for an escape. Shelby also rewatched the Hobbit series and binged The Office with Mark, although they had seen it before.
We talked about mental health and the cultivation of peace in the midst of such fear and chaos. Shelby used the word “curate” to describe how she took control of her online life. She unfollowed political accounts and people whose posts were too disruptive to her peace of mind then filled that void with Facebook groups about her genuine interests, like stained glass art, gardening, and cathedrals. She chose to nourish herself in gentle, deliberate ways. “A lot of us spend a lot of time in our heads,” she observed wisely. This already smart, glowing woman seemed to have learned that furnishing her mind with beautiful things would keep her sane and centered. “Find the joy where you can,” she told me. (Again I say amen!)
We spoke at length about the vaccine, about how she felt when it was first announced, and about her experience. Having to work a full shift the first day the vaccine was available to her, she got in line and was vaccinated as soon as possible on day two. Shelby called the feeling “indescribable” and admitted to crying. “Is this it? Is this the end of things?” she thought, and, “finally we’re going to get a leg up.” Her voice broke at this, and I got that giggly, warm, weepy feeling just listening to her recount the memory. The relief was palpable.
She also told me a story about a colleague, a long time male nurse who was videoed receiving his vaccination. Normally a stoic guy, unemotional and gruff though experienced as a first responder in a wide array of tragedies and historic medical events over the decades, this man wept as he received his shot. He broke down in front of his friends and colleagues and offered them this intimate assurance, his blessing to weep and be moved: “They don’t know what we’ve seen.”
Reflecting on the Year & Looking Forward:
I asked Shelby what she wishes people would do differently, given her perspective. How does she believe society could have handled this better? Her answer was chilling and not what I expected. She said gently and firmly that everyone should have a living will. We should leave instructions for our loved ones that clearly state our wishes for the end of life. She saw many patients whose conditions declined so rapidly toward “medical futility” that, on the worst days of their lives, families did not know what to do. They faced impossible, tormenting decisions because the patients could not speak for themselves, and they often had to make these decisions without being able to see their loved ones. Establishing a living will in healthy times is a gift to your family later.
I asked Shelby whether the pandemic has changed her. First she announced that it certainly opened her up to the power of hand washing, ha! And she described all the reasons why our new normal might include wearing a mask for air travel or to minimize cold and flu season. In fact, she talked about mask wearing overall, about how it has been such a small concession for people to make, just kind of shaking her head at the resistance some groups showed.
Shelby also joked about how our Oklahoma-bred tornado preparedness might have to mature into something broader, to serve as a buffer against future mass crises. Regarding Doomsday Preppers? “Nobody’s laughing now!” We chuckled at that but only for a moment.
She also expressed with some gravity that “the pandemic was eye opening on so many levels, we were all so unprepared.” And she expressed her hope that “smart people are preparing for this to happen again.” She considers herself “cautious to a fault” now and, as with her faith, makes no apologies.
Shelby’s spirit seems to be not just unharmed but perhaps bolstered. Despite all the trauma, uncertainty, pain, isolation, and heart-wrenching work of the past year, all of it unplanned and unprecedented, she presses into the belief that “Life is resilient.” When I heard her speak those words on the phone last week, I felt it. Now, when I just think of her saying those words, it feels like a quilt made of very old, beautiful velvet and denim, soft and strong and reliable. A trustworthy fact that will keep us warm. Life is resilient.
Shelby and I spoke on the evening of March 4, 2021, nearly one full year after she began wearing two masks at work and started her voluntary self isolation in her living room. Oklahoma numbers are down now and falling steadily every week. Vaccinations, amazingly, are gaining traction statewide. And she and her family remain safe and healthy. All gifts for which to be wildly thankful.
I know that all of us who watched the news all year and witnessed as best we could the love being poured out through nurses and doctors want to give Shelby the biggest hug right now. We want her, and her work family, to feel all of our appreciation. We want their deep reservoirs of compassion and fortitude to be replenished in abundance, for their own happiness and well being as well as for whatever is coming next. We need them to be whole and well nourished.
One of the final sentences Shelby offered me was just what I needed to hear, just what we all need to hear sometimes: “I knew life could be hard, but I never lost hope that things would get better.” And so, no matter what any of us faces, no matter how real the threat or how long and hard the battle, we absolutely must not lose hope. Things will get better.
Thank you, Shelby, from the very bottom, neediest place in my heart.