Holding the line

Allison Kirkner, nurse practitioner at UVA. Photo: John Robinson Allison Kirkner, nurse practitioner at UVA. Photo: John Robinson

While most of us are staying home, some locals are still heading to work, to keep essential services running. Here are nine of their stories, in their own words.

Allison Kirkner

Lead nurse practitioner and manager, cardiothoracic ICU at UVA Hospital

As told to Erin O’Hare

Every single day is a different day. It would be totally fascinating were it not terrifying.

We work 12-hour shifts in our ICU, cover 24/7, and typically take care of patients who’ve had heart and lung surgeries.

Surgeons like to operate, but, three, four weeks ago, my surgeons made the decision to stop what we’re calling “electives.”

Because the volume is down, I’m asking for volunteers from my team to send to the COVID unit. Six or seven advanced providers, including myself, volunteered to either go on our regularly scheduled shifts or pick up extra ones. We’ve been doing that for about three weeks now. It’s been nice to shift our resources to help our colleagues.

There are a lot of conversations at UVA and elsewhere about who should be taking care of these patients and who shouldn’t be. I have pretty severe asthma, but I feel like everybody has something going on. I have been so impressed by my colleagues who have stepped up and said “I’ll do this part,” or “I’ll do that part.” This is a team sport.

I’m from southwestern Virginia and this is the hospital my parents would come to if they were very, very sick. You do it to take care of your patients and your community and lend whatever expertise you have toward patient care. I’m not a corny person—I’m actually a very sarcastic person—but, one thing I always talk about is that I’m solely motivated by patient care, and that’s really, really hard and frustrating in this. We’ve definitely been hamstrung by the federal government and by slower responses. I’m pretty impressed with UVA’s response overall. There are areas where we wish we could go back in time [and make adjustments] that would help us now. We’ve also been blessed with time, because our wave hasn’t hit yet, unlike New Orleans or New York. We have a little more time to prepare.

Something I’ve learned dealing with critically ill patients who have bad outcomes and do die sometimes, is to let myself wallow when I need to. I have days where I know I’m not going to get anything done, and I let myself be sad. We need to take the time to know what our bodies are saying to us, and to grieve not just specific patients but normal life. I’m also trying to stay working out on my water rower, and spending time with my husband, who’s a school teacher. And also wine.


Photo: Zack Wajsgras

Laura DeLapp

Shift supervisor at The Haven;
intake coordinator at PACEM

As told to Laura Longhine

The Haven is a day shelter. Before, we were open to anyone in need, including those who were housed. They would sign their names on the sign-in sheet and then go about their day. Now, we are no longer able to serve the housed community. We are now greeting people outside of the door, we are temperature checking, we are asking specific questions about health. We did have two that we had to turn away—one had left New York just last week, and another who had just left Maryland.   

Once they are inside those doors they have to sanitize their hands, and we’re sanitizing the building, all surfaces, every hour.

There’s very few of us working inside the building, because most of the guests we have are extremely vulnerable. We’re communicating with the other staff either on Zoom or phone calls or emails.

We’re still interacting with the guests, but now it’s a lot different because you know we have to maintain that space. We actually put a piece of tape down by the front counter, and everybody’s covered in masks anytime they’re in the shelter.

The atmosphere is a lot quieter. I think a lot of [our guests] are concerned. I put one of the computers on the news every morning so they can keep up with everything that’s going on. It’s almost a totally different place right now. 

For overnight shelter, PACEM is housing the women in The Haven, and we are housing the men at Key Rec Center. All the beds were spaced six feet apart.

As far as getting infected, I don’t have any concerns. Because a lot of the guests we have currently, I’ve been dealing with over a year now. I’m familiar with most of them, their health concerns. I sort of worry more going to the grocery store than I do at The Haven.

I’m always in a mask. I keep hand sanitizer in my vehicle, in my jacket pocket, anywhere that I can fit hand sanitizer I typically have it. And I’m making sure that myself and the guests are continually washing our hands, not touching faces, that sort of thing.

Exercise is a big stress release for me, because I have kids, I have five at home. My fiancé kind of maintains the household when I’m here.

I’ve got a good support system: I’m from a large family, and the majority of us are essential workers. So we talk a lot.


Staff photo

Jane Colony Mills

Executive director of Loaves & Fishes
Food Pantry

As told to Brielle Entzminger

In our normal operations, people come into the pantry and sit at a registration desk, they sign on a signature pad that’s been touched by multiple hands, and they grab a grocery cart and pick out their food. We also use 160 volunteers a week.

So when the epidemic began, we realized pretty quickly that we were going to have to completely redo how we do things. We had to ask our volunteers to stay home, to reduce the chance for exposure.

Now, instead of letting people shop, our staff organizes and bags the food, and puts it into grocery carts, wearing masks and gloves, so it’s ready to go when people pull into the parking lot. We’re still doing a face-to-face registration, but it’s with a clipboard—I’m the one doing that, with a mask and gloves on, and we’ve seen at least a 20 percent increase in people coming in.

Our staff push a grocery cart to a car, and the people receiving the food put it into the car themselves. Staff then sanitize the cart with Lysol before loading it up with bags again.

Trying to keep a distance between myself and the people who come in is pretty hard, because a lot of engines are running. You’re trying to get information from six feet away, and I can’t necessarily hear what people are saying. We’ve also seen a huge uptick in Spanish-speaking households coming for help, so I’ve recruited my daughter, who speaks Spanish, to help with that, along with one of our volunteers.

I think our greatest fear as a staff is that one of us is going to infect one of our clients. We’ve had some of our older clients and ill clients come to get food, and it’s so worrying. But they have no other way of getting food. The whole thing about infecting our families scares us too. I take off everything I’ve worn to work and put it immediately in the laundry. The gloves are thrown away, and the mask also goes into the laundry.

We’re all just trying to get back to our normal, as normal as we can be. I love to cook, so with my daughter and husband home, I’m making dinner all the time, and they are too. While I’m jealous that I’m not actually getting to stay home, the concept is great, because it’s making us appreciate each other more.


Staff photo

Modou Secka

Cashier at Oak Hill Market & Deli

As told to Carol Diggs

I have been working here for five years, and I have never seen anything like this. We want to stay open for our customers, so I am very careful to wipe everything down and to keep things clean. And we have the rules about distance, the tape on the floor. For us working here, they’ve given us masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, and wipes. I use the spray sanitizer on the glass doors too, that’s why they don’t look so clean as they do with Windex. And the plastic screen for the checkout counter will be coming in later this week.

We’re not open as much—only from 10am to 9pm now, it used to be 7am to 11pm. But we have nice customers, they understand. When they come, and they see cars parked outside, they look in first and make sure there won’t be more than 10 people inside. If a family comes, some of them may stay outside.

Many customers do come in for groceries, because they can get in and get out quick, and they don’t want to go to the big stores. And we have a great deal right now on soda.

I have to make sure I’m careful when I go home, too. When I get home, I change all my clothes and wash them, wash my hands too.


Photo: John Robertson

John Anderson

Driver for JAUNT

As told to Brielle Entzminger

Before the epidemic, it was just the everyday hustle and bustle. People felt free to use JAUNT, and ridership was pretty steady. Now, there’s a lot less riders. I drive on the same route, but it’s been cut short. I work less hours, since there’s not as much of a demand for drivers. We aren’t charging fares at this time. Every driver has to wear masks and gloves, and sanitize their bus several times a day—the seats, walls, rails, essentially everything that people touch.

Because I’m not going into the JAUNT office and socializing with my co-workers like usual, it can also be a bit isolating. When I go to work, I see the other drivers in the parking lot and make small talk for a little while, but we have to keep our distance from each other.

As for the passengers, I’ve haven’t seen that many people wearing masks and gloves, but they’ve been practicing social distancing and sitting far away from each other. We’ve also been picking up a lot of health care providers from the main facilities and transporting them. However, I feel pretty safe and at ease, because they can’t enter their facilities without being screened for virus [symptoms].

I try to stay safe and distant from everyone. But still having to go places, both for work and outside of work, it can be scary.

I’ve been sleeping a lot more than usual, because my hours are a little bit different. I don’t have to go into work as early as I normally do. I try not to look at the news as much, and really try to stay away from it, because most of it is bad news. And outside of work, I’ve been staying home and trying to stay safe. It seems like it’s going to be a long time before it gets better, but I’m just hanging in there, and trying not to let it get to me. That’s all you can do.


Photo courtesy subject

Erik Bailey

Paramedic for Charlottesville Fire Department

As told to Erin O’Hare

Before, you’d wear a mask if someone had the flu, or another confirmed illness. Now we wear one always. I’m a lot more vigilant than I used to be, because of how insidious the virus is and how it’s spread: You have to assume everyone has the virus and be good about your PPE usage.

I work on the ambulance, in addition to the fire engine, directly involved in patient care and transport, so, if I’m within six feet of a patient, I’m wearing eye protection, a surgical mask, gloves, and a gown. And the patient wears a surgical mask, too.

The N-95 mask shortage has been all over the news. We’re wearing N-95s when we’re doing an aerosolizing procedure, which can produce airborne [virus] particles, such as intubation, doing CPAP, CPR, things like that, we’re wearing N-95s and the plastic visors, as well as gowns.

You talk to any health care provider, what they’re concerned about is, are you staying safe and healthy? Is your family staying safe and healthy? Are your co-workers staying safe and healthy? Because this is a quietly spreading virus, you’re worried you’re taking it home to your kids, your wife, your husband, anyone else. You see across the country all these fire departments with large portions of their staff being quarantined due to exposure. That’s my biggest concern: I’d feel bad spreading it to other people. My parents are both in their 60s, living in northern Virginia, which is a hot spot right now, so I’m concerned about them, definitely talking on the phone with them more than I used to. And the PPE shortages. Any provider is concerned about having the PPE that they need. We’ve been fortunate to have it so far.

I cope by trying to learn as much as I can about what other departments, providers, and health systems are doing. But I have to pull back when I can, and focus on other stuff. My wife and I just bought a house, so we’ve been doing a lot of DIY projects. I’ll take my bike out on remote roads. A lot of streaming. Trying to read, eat well, rest, stay active. Oh, and I’ve recently joined the legions of people baking bread.

[Medics] are kinda going through what everyone else is going through, making adjustments, trying to be more careful. I’d just say, take care of each other the best you can.


Staff photo

Terrell Mellen

Pharmacist at Top Notch Pharmacy

As told to Ben Hitchcock

It’s really important for people to realize that, even though there’s a pandemic, they should still be prioritizing their health—which means getting their regular medications on time, and efficiently.

It’s been easy for us to come to work. I know a lot of essential workers are kind of nervous about that, but we know our patients by name, know them really well. It makes us want to come to work, to still provide their medications for them. Just letting them know to remember to take care of themselves at a time like this.

We’re still open normal hours, offering all the services we normally do to our patients. We’re not letting people in the store, we’re doing curbside pickup and home delivery only. We can also mail prescriptions. The only thing we’re not currently doing is immunizations, to protect the patients.

We haven’t had a huge problem getting in any medications at this time. The only one that we’re having to limit some supply of is the hydroxychloroquine. [Demand for hydroxychloroquine skyrocketed after President Trump tweeted that the drug was a “game changer” in the fight against the virus; he was referring to a French study that has since been discredited.]

We got in as much as we could. It’s normally used for patients with chronic conditions like lupus. It also can be used as an anti-malarial drug. We’re prioritizing dispensing it to patients who have been on it long-term, and need it for their chronic conditions.

We’re trying to keep business here as normal as possible—still taking days off to decompress from it, though. [My go-to] is gardening and house projects, these days. And mountain biking, too.

Everybody has been, honestly, so kind and generous these past couple weeks. A patient today dropped off Bodo’s, just because. I think everybody’s trying to take care of each other.


Photo: Zack Wajsgras

Lester Jackson

Elevator assistant mechanic at UVA

As told to Erin O’Hare

All of the elevators I work on are hospital, medical research, or medical related. Doing my job, you could lose your life, but it’s more likely from accidents like a long fall or getting caught up in machinery. But now there’s a heightened sense of, you could lose your life and possibly usher in the death of family members, too. If I get this thing, I could bring it home. The threat is there. Not every moment of my time, or even the majority of it, is spent working around hospital elevators associated with the pandemic, but when something needs to be done [there], we play a major part in it.

There are a few elevators at the hospital side that have to work at all times: the helicopter elevator, elevators that are dealing with this pandemic. There’s no getting around it.

We have to wear face masks at UVA, period. But when going specifically to the hospital elevators used for patients who have the virus, I have to wear a Tyvek full bodysuit with a hood. It covers my boots and everything. I wear a surgical mask, an N-95 mask, a splash shield, latex gloves.

It’s hard to feel completely safe. Whenever you have to put on that amount of gear, you may feel physically safe, but mentally, it wears on you. The more stuff you put on, the worse you tend to feel emotionally. Every day when I get home, I take all of my clothes off and put them in a bag outside of my house—my shoes, my socks, my shirt, my pants, everything. My neighbors are getting a free show! It is what it is. I have a bucket of water and soap outside, and I wash my hands and my beard. As soon as I get into the house, I get right into the first shower downstairs before I do anything else.

I’m trying to do what I can to keep my family safe. Trying to keep any exposure that I could possibly have to a minimum.

I’m making a lot of music, though, trying to stay creative. Working on a lot of projects, a Nathaniel Star love album, Eros, up next. I’m spending time with my children, my family. I take my mom groceries. She has everything she needs, but I can’t hug her. She can’t hug her grandchildren. That’s been hard.

You just find yourself saying, every day: “This is crazy. This is crazy.” I don’t even know what else to say. That’s on repeat.


Cooper Halley

Lyft driver

As told to Carol Diggs

I wasn’t too concerned about this virus at first; it seemed like it was mostly overseas, not here. But when the president started closing down travel… I talked to my dad, he’s a pretty smart guy, and he gave me some specific tips that he knew from working for Uber. He was already taking these precautions, because he’s an older man, you know, but for me—I’m 26— it’s hard for me, like most young people, to be afraid of something I can’t see the effect of.

In a car, it’s hard to keep six feet apart. So I keep the windows cracked—unless the customer objects—to circulate air from outside. I cover every inch of my skin, and I wear gloves. I have several different bandannas. Of course I can’t find a medical mask anymore. Usually when I get home, I spray any part of the car that won’t get ruined by it. It’s funny, most of my customers aren’t taking precautions, but they expect the driver to; I think it makes them feel better. I think everyone is trying to be a little nicer to each other, perhaps because you can’t be close together, you know?

Most of my customers don’t have a car of their own. The rides I get are people going to the store for something they need, or to or from the airport. No one’s going out for entertainment.

For now, I’m feeling it out day by day. My dad has stopped driving. I’m keeping an eye on my sick-o-meter. If it gets so a majority of my rides are worrying me, I’ll stop.

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Virginia Stockwell

This is a great article. It even made me tear up thinking about all the worrying going on.