Sharon Sullivan went into nursing for the stability.
She was working full-time as a hairdresser and making good money. She completed cosmetology classes during high school and styled hair through her 20s and 30s. It was flexible and social and she had a loyal base of clients.
But shortly after her son, Ayden, was born, life got complicated. She and her husband got divorced. Her daughter, Katie, was not quite 3. Her parents both got sick – her dad had lung cancer; her mom had a heart attack – within a few months of each other. Her dad passed away in October 2008 and her mom died the following May.
She started to wonder if styling hair was going to be enough to build and sustain the sort of life she wanted for her kids. She wanted affordable health insurance. She wanted to save for retirement.
“My motto when I got divorced was stability,” she said. “My life felt a little out of control and I wanted something stable.”
She was touring Chicago Public Schools to choose a kindergarten program for her daughter when a message from one of the principals struck a chord.
“He kept talking about how education is so important and you need an education and it just rang in my head,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god. I need an education.'”
She enrolled in the nursing program at Malcolm X College.
“When I was in the hospital with my mom, the nurses took such good care of her and I thought, ‘I could see doing this,'” Sullivan said. “And when we had hospice for my dad, the woman was so amazing. She was able to tell us exactly what was going to happen. And I always had an interest in science and the body. That’s always been fascinating to me.”
She completed her associate’s degree at Malcolm X and enrolled in Purdue University’s online program to earn her Bachelor of Science in nursing. She continued to style hair and raise her kids. She added job-hunting to the list.
In late 2018, she landed a nursing job at Community First Medical Center on the city’s Northwest Side, and she’s worked there ever since.
Her kids are now 11 and 14. Her ex-husband passed away three years ago.
And now she’s working at a hospital during a pandemic.
“When we first started hearing what was happening, I had a lot of fear,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is not what I signed up for.’ I wanted to help and I wanted to nurture people and help them get well, but to this extreme? Where it’s a risk to my life and I’m a single mom? That made me nervous.”
Sullivan, 49, lives in my neighborhood. Our daughters are friends and I’ve watched her tackle challenges, with grace and grit, that could easily break a person. I wanted to tell her story because it illustrates the sorts of decisions and trade-offs and life-or-death risks that our health care providers make day in and day out to try to keep us alive.
National Nurses Week, which begins Wednesday, seemed like an appropriate time.
“One of my girlfriends is an attorney,” Sullivan told me. “She sent me a text message, ‘I know this is going to be really hard for you to hear, but I want you to make sure all your paperwork is in order. Just make sure your kids know where your stuff is. Your will, your wishes. Make sure it’s all there.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. This is so real.'”
She talked to her kids about her end-of-life preferences.
“I don’t want them to have to make those choices. I decided that after their dad passed away,” she said. “I put it all in writing. It’s a conversation I had to have with them. ‘Just so you know, you’re cared for. I have everything set in place.’ That was really hard.”
I asked her if she ever regrets her career change.
It’s complicated, she said.
“I’m grateful to have a job,” she said. “It’s a time when so many people are losing their jobs and it feels like the medical field is something that’s always going to be needed.”
Then again: She takes every precaution she can think of – two masks, a face shield, goggles, a hair net, gloves, a gown while she’s at work; changing out of her clothes outside and running straight to the shower when she gets home – and still she worries about bringing the virus home and infecting her kids. They don’t even ride in her car.
She reads the news stories about nurses contracting COVID-19 and dying. A supervisor and a nurse at her hospital have tested positive.
“I can’t imagine these kids going through life without me,” she said. “I’m a single mom. I did make a commitment to nursing, but I also have a commitment to these kids.”
Quitting, she said, would feel like “dodging the draft.”
“And these other nurses are my friends, right?” she said. “One less nurse means everybody has more patients, and we’re already really short-staffed.”
Sullivan works in the telemetry unit, which means she’s usually monitoring eight patients at a time.
“It’s a step down from ICU,” she said. “But because ICU is full, we’re getting a lot of the patients that belong in ICU on our floor.”
I asked if many of her patients have COVID-19.
“All of my patients have COVID,” she said.
She spends her shifts running, literally, from room to room administering Tylenol to keep her patients’ fevers down so they don’t start to convulse and lose oxygen. Doctors instruct the nurses to keep patients on their sides or stomachs as much as possible to keep the thick mucus associated with COVID from blocking their airways and choking them to death.
“It’s hard to explain to somebody who’s confused and sick that they need to stay on their stomach,” she said. “We have a lot of language barriers. A lot of people speak Spanish, Polish.”
Last weekend, she was treating a patient in his mid-50s who came in with fairly mild symptoms and suddenly his heart rate spiked to 190.
“It’s a lot of anxiety,” she said. “And families are calling all day long, ‘How’s my loved one?’ Which is awful. Because they can’t be with them. You’re FaceTiming with the families and telling someone’s father, ‘Keep fighting. Hang in there.’ It’s traumatic.”
But necessary. Which is a tiny, insufficient word for the work these nurses and doctors are performing, all while wondering if they’re about to get sick, about to get their families sick.
“I know they’ve got test sites for medical professionals,” Sullivan said, “but if I go wait in line for a test and it takes me five days to get the results, I’ve already worked three additional days by then. What, do I keep going back again? When the antibody test comes out I’ll get tested just to know. I’d like to donate my plasma if I can.”
She feels less and less fear as the weeks pass. So do her kids. Her son has started meeting her at the front door with hand sanitizer when her shift ends.
“The more I come home safe, the more comfortable the kids feel,” she said. “It’s not what I expected. But we’ll ride it out.”
How do we repay that sort of courage? How do we repair the damage to the bodies and psyches of our hospital workers while this virus marches on? What is the plan to care for our caretakers? We should be discussing, with the same urgency that we devote to the economy, their access to quality mental health care, their access to ample personal protective gear, tangible ways to express our praise and gratitude. Maybe there’s a GI Bill, of sorts, to be enacted for hospital workers.
I think it’s important to bear witness to their stories, their fears, their days, which reveal, over and over, that heroes walk among us. I just hope we don’t look away too soon.