4 Women on How They're Fighting the Coronavirus Pandemic on the Frontlines

When much of the country went into isolation, these women stepped up to fight COVID-19 in unique and powerful ways—and they say they won’t stop until we beat this thing.
By Bethany Heitman
October 21, 2020

Bridget Harrigan

Houston, Texas

When this nurse realized hospitals around the country were struggling to treat an influx of COVID-19 patients, she began traveling to the hot zones to help out. 

Credit: TODD SPOTH

How did you get started traveling as a nurse?

I’ve been a traveling nurse for about a year—I started before the pandemic began. This past spring, I was supposed to be heading to Austin for a job, but that fell through because of what was going on. I’ve always had a passion for critical care, for caring for the sickest of the sick. I saw a call for nurses to go to New York City. Everything in me was telling me I had to do it. Ever since I was younger, I wanted to somehow be on the front lines—I used to want to be an Army nurse. I saw this as my opportunity to be on those front lines.

New York had very high numbers at that point. What was it like there?

No amount of preparation would have been enough for what I walked into. Before I left, I read social media posts from other traveling nurses and thought, “There’s no way it can be that bad.” But it was. I walked into a nightmare. My heart broke for the patients, their families—but also for the staff I was working with because they didn’t deserve to see so much loss.

Seeing all of that must have been incredibly difficult.

Not a single one of my patients survived. Usually in the ICU, you don’t cycle through that many patients. People are there for a long time. But with this, there’d be multiple people who would cycle through one bed because they were passing so fast. There were days I’d go home so deflated, thinking I hadn’t helped anyone. It was hard to think I hadn’t done anything except help people pass.

How long were you in New York?

I was in New York for about six weeks, but it felt more like twelve because of the amount of work. Then I saw a crisis job in Arizona pop up—the posting said they were expecting Arizona to be the next New York. So I jumped on it. I spent eight weeks there.

Were you ever scared you’d get COVID-19?

I actually tested positive for it in July. I passed the thermal-temperature test when I arrived at work and worked for an hour and a half before it hit me—I was short of breath and had a high fever. I immediately got tested and went home. It was scary. I cried for days, not for myself but because at work I had left behind patients who were very sick and I had promised them I’d be back the next day. One of them ended up passing. I had to quarantine for 14 days before going back.

For those who haven’t seen this virus firsthand, what do you want them to know?

That it’s real—and it’s bad. Anger is not an emotion I easily feel. But when I see people posting things about it not being real, I get so angry. I understand that we are all going through a lot of crap. I love going out with friends on a Friday night. But we can’t do that stuff right now. We need to take this seriously. So I try to continue to educate people. I believe wearing a mask goes a long way. For those who say they can’t breathe in a mask, I can’t tell you how to feel—but I can tell you, scientifically, it does not affect your oxygen saturation. So everyone really needs to be wearing them.

Ala Stanford, MD

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

As a pediatric surgeon, Dr. Stanford was used to structured, highly scheduled days. But when she saw the North Philadelphia community where she was born being ravaged by the virus, she threw that work-life balance out the window and dedicated herself to setting up a mobile-testing operation.

Credit: Marissa Weekes Mason/MWM Images

What was your career like before the pandemic?

I was in private practice, so I was able to really structure my life—I’d get up with my kids in the morning and get them off to school and then start my day. I was like a true suburban mom; I had figured out how to be a surgeon, mom, and wife all at once.

How did that change?

In April, news came out in Philly that Black people were dying at a higher rate than any other group. Everyone was calling me, asking me how to get tested. I wasn’t operating at the time, because no one was really operating. So I started reaching out to doctors and nurses who were friends of mine, saying that the city needed our help—there weren’t enough places to get tested, or people couldn’t afford to get tested. I decided I was going to start helping people get tested. No one should have been dying because they couldn’t afford a test. I called LabCorp, who asked me what I was going to do if people were uninsured. I told them to bill me and that I would figure out how to get the money afterward.

How did you begin the testing?

First, I looked at where the highest rates of the disease were. And I went on Instagram and announced that if you needed a test, you could fill out an application. We started with 10 people and we basically drove by their house, had them come outside, and administered the test.

Did it grow quickly?

Yes, within 48 hours. My pastor started reaching out to churches in hard-hit areas, asking if we could set up in their parking lots. We would create an entire triage unit, and people could either walk up or drive up to get tested. Now, we set up testing sites four or five days a week. We also have a contract with SEPTA, the local transportation authority, and we test their employees, too. At this point, we’ve gotten a grant from the government, along with donations to be doing all this work.

Your work as a surgeon must be rewarding, but this sounds like it’s on a different level.

It’s on such a larger scale. And for young kids to see a Black doctor doing this—even many elderly folks haven’t seen a Black doctor. Black doctors only make up 5 percent of acting physicians across the United States; it’s been that way since I was in medical school. So, as a Black person, it’s not uncommon to have never had a Black doctor. And evidence has shown that the outcomes tend to be better if a doctor is culturally competent when it comes to who they are treating. Now, there’s a group of doctors who work with me; we are called the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium. We treat everyone, but when we go into Black communities, it’s purposeful that we are Black doctors and nurses going there to take care of people.

Do you see yourself continuing this type of community work in the long run?

Absolutely. I’d like to be able to offer preventative care and cancer screenings for things like colon and prostate cancer, along with helping to control diabetes. I’d like to create free clinics for things like that. I’m ready for this to end so that we can start really focusing on other medical things that increase people’s life spans.

Ariela Safira

New York, NY

In early March, this mental health entrepreneur was gearing up to launch Real, her new business that aimed to make online and in-person therapy accessible to all. Then the pandemic hit. Rather than letting it derail her plans, she realized that—more than ever—people needed easy access to therapy.

Credit: Courtesy of Real

What inspired you to begin working in the world of mental health?

It was triggered by a friend’s suicide attempt—which was my first time ever seeing how the mental health system really worked. It didn’t feel like we had real definitions for success within therapy, let alone pathways to ensure patients were reaching success.

So then you came up with the idea for Real. What is the mission?

Our mission is really to build a paradigm shift. We want to encourage making mental health something that we regularly and habitually take care of in the same way that we take care of our physical bodies. So [we] created a monthly membership model (starting at $28/month, launched late this summer)—the idea being you could have access to therapists in person or digitally.

And then COVID-19 hit…

Yes. We were planning to launch our brick-and-mortar space in April—and then quarantine went into effect. We quickly realized that we needed to figure something else out because, between isolation and fear of getting ill, mental health needs were going to skyrocket.

How did you address those things?

We quickly launched complimentary digital therapy in individual and group formats. We offered what we call digital mental check-ins, which are meant to be one-time therapy appointments. And then we held group experiences—think 10 members with one therapist meeting weekly on Zoom around a very specific life experience or topic. We found that people really needed this and responded to it.

Is this something you’ll continue?

Yes. We call it Real to the People. Real saw such high demand for these therapy services that we’ve officially launched Real to the People as a long-standing, complimentary crisis-response initiative. Most recently, Real offered complimentary therapy services to Black womxn, people of color, and allies, in light of the ongoing fight for justice against police brutality and systematic racism against the Black community. Each topic-driven Real to the People session lasts about four weeks.

What have you learned about mental health throughout this?

The biggest thing is to not wait until a crisis to take care of your mental [health]. For the most part, many people only ask for mental health care in crises. This means we’re not building sustained mental health habits. However, I do think that this has been a very special time because people are more comfortable seeking care. I think that’s because we don’t necessarily feel alone in needing it.

Lindsey Anderson

Portsmouth, Virginia

This school instructional aide had spent her career caring for children’s educational needs. As schools were dismissed in favor of virtual learning, she realized that school closures might force kids who relied on school lunches to go hungry—so she leaped into action.

Credit: RYAN DONNELL

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, you’ve been helping feed children in need in your community. How did you begin this work?

When they dismissed school, I had this thought: “What are kids going to eat?” A lot of the children get lunch for free at school. I figured if they are now at home and their parents are working, they may not have the food they need. That didn’t sit right with me. So I put out a call on social media, basically saying that if people needed food, I’d deliver lunches. At first, I was making lunches in my kitchen and delivering them to about 10 kids a day. By the following week, it was 50. It just grew and grew. Now, we are feeding up to 175 kids a day.

Are you still doing it alone?

No. This whole initiative has been community-funded—by churches and small groups. I was originally making the lunches in my kitchen, but a friend has an event space and offered her space for us to use. And we have lots of volunteers. People have donated supplies—things like Hula-Hoops and other activities so kids would also have something to do at home. Another organization gave us a bunch of books.

And now you’ve turned this into a nonprofit organization?

We are now a 501(c)3 organization called Vision Driven 757. When people started sending donations, I realized we needed to make it legit. I didn’t want anyone wondering where the money was going—I wanted that to be clear. I made sure people who prepared food had food-handler cards and that everything was safe and sanitary. I didn’t want anything stopping us. 

And you decided to expand what you do this school year?

Yes, we collected laptops and other technology to help with distance learning. I’ve also thought a lot about what else we can do—like tutoring or providing a space where kids can come if they don’t have Wi-Fi. I just want to be of service to these kids. I’m thinking we may still need to do lunches at times—like during holiday breaks. I just want to make sure kids are always all right.

You’re taking care of so many other people, how do you make sure you care for yourself?

I try to take a day every few weeks where I don’t do much at all. A personal day helps me reenergize and refocus so that I can get back out there and help people. 

This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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