Su Ofe

Su Ofe

Stories from the Home We Love So Well: Hawks on the Frontlines, Part I

The Home We Love So Well: Stories from Home Series

Hawks on the Frontlines, Part I

Indya Lawrence ’21 of Florence, Alabama, rises at 5:00 a.m. and suits up: gas mask and full body suit over her uniform. She spends the day with her 214 MP (military police) unit in the Alabama Army National Guard traveling to and from and deep-cleaning in nursing homes infected by COVID-19, often not returning to the Homewood armory base where she’s staying until 10:00 at night. Before getting on the bus at the end of the day, she uses the same cleaning and disinfecting processes she’s used in the nursing homes to decontaminate herself. On days off, there are training seminars and protocols to learn and study. “We really pay attention to details,” says Indya. “There are protocols we follow for everything. We don’t want to get each other sick. There is a lot of training.” Many of the nursing homes her Guard unit serves are short of staff because the workers have gotten sick, as well.

In addition to the pressure of the work she’s doing, Indya has a full-time class load.

There is nothing normal about college life in the era of COVID-19—not for any student—but for students who are front-line workers and new graduates who have just entered the workforce, the load is enormous.

Trevor Berry ’21 of Huntsville, Alabama, has a CDL license and is an 88M—a motor transport operator—which means his skills at driving an 18-wheeler are necessary in his assignment with the 781st Transportation Unit, Alabama Army National Guard. He spends his days backing up big trucks to the loading docks at the Alabama Surplus Warehouse, unloading goods such as masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. “I am with a group of soldiers from several different units working together to organize, track, and sanitize selected items needed for the relief and help involving COVID-19,” says Trevor.

Many frontline workers are college students and young graduates. The shelf-stockers, floor sweepers, sales clerks, cashiers, and other retail jobs are lifelines for college students in good times, bringing in just enough cash to cover trips to Taco Bell and Chick-Fil-A and LaZona Rosa, favorite haunts for Huntingdon Hawks. Now, those fill-in jobs between classes are essential—not only for their paychecks, but also for the country.

At the Target store where Baylee Harrington ’21 works, newly taped floor-arrows point the way through aisles reassigned as single-file. Plexiglas partitions separate patrons from cashiers. Someone at the door counts and regulates the number of guests who are allowed in the store in order to maintain social distancing. Store hours have shortened to allow more time for cleaning when the store is closed. Workers wear masks. Taped barriers signal safe distances from other patrons in check-out lanes. The aisles that used to house mounds of toilet paper and comforting levels of hand sanitizer, wet wipes, and Lysol are empty. “We have had guests who get mad at us but most of them are very understanding,” says Baylee. Recently, a co-worker tested positive for COVID-19. Target has extended sick leave by two weeks so that workers can quarantine if necessary, but Baylee continues working and feels well.

Annabelle Koontz ’21 has worked at Publix in Navarre, Florida, since 2017. Publix has taken the same measures as Target to achieve social distancing among customers. “Every [customer] thinks that they know the right thing to do in these situations, and they’re all sharing those opinions with me,” says Annabelle. “They’re frustrated with the limits on certain items, the one-way traffic inside the store, and always have opinions about me wearing a mask. They’re not able to find some of the essential items for their families and children, or for their work. I have had some customers who have been very grateful towards me and thank me for being there, as well as customers who want to take out their frustrations on me. So much has changed inside our store since this pandemic started getting really serious. My only reason for still going into work every day is to help these people who are there for their families or shopping for elderly neighbors or friends. I hope and pray every day for this to just be over soon or at least to start getting better, and for the attitudes of our customers to begin to change and get better as well.”

At the grocery store in Phenix City, Alabama, where Tripp Jones ’20 works as a stock clerk, he must wear a mask and gloves if he’s working the day shift; gloves only during the night shift. “I feel safe from getting COVID-19 but my biggest fear is bringing the disease home and getting my mom sick,” says Tripp. He goes into work at 7:00 p.m. most days, breaking down palettes of newly-received shipments and organizing products according to the aisles where the products are located. After the store closes at 8:00 p.m., he and fellow stock clerks roll the products out to the floor and fill the shelves, bringing the older merchandise to the front of the shelves. “Most of the time we finish between 12:30 and 1:30 a.m. I’m trying my best to help my community during this pandemic. COVID-19 took my senior year of baseball away from me so I want to do as much as I can to fight this disease until it’s gone forever.”

Jamie Langford McQueen ’17, an athletic trainer at Spain Park High School in Hoover, Alabama, was furloughed because of the pandemic, so she took a job at her local Home Depot, where she worked during breaks at Huntingdon and during her master’s program. “I am exposed to people every day making sure they can find what they need for their homes, fulfilling online orders for those who do not want to come in and shop, and providing curbside pickup for those orders. The store is understaffed and overwhelmed due to the pandemic, but I am glad I am there to help the customers and the business!”

The last time we heard from Heith McCracken ’18, he was volunteering with the Cajun Army, wading through floodwaters to rescue stranded North Carolinians following Hurricane Florence. Heith is a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-the-job-done-come-heck-or-highwater kind of guy. Now, he’s working on the street crew for Prattville’s Wastewater Department, where he maintains sewer lines and cleans up sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs). “The coronavirus can live for two weeks in wastewater,” says Heith. “It has been a little nerve-wracking during this pandemic. We don’t know which manholes or sewer lines are fed by an infected person’s house. All we can do is to do our jobs the best we can regardless so that we can minimize SSOs that could run off into streets or streams and potentially expose unknowing citizens and children.” Although the water that returns to the plant is decontaminated using chlorine and UV sterilization, the water on the streets is rife with pathogens. “When we clean and unclog sewer lines, we use a specialized truck that pressure-washes the inside of the sewer lines. Just like with a regular pressure-washer one might use on their driveway, ours sprays mist into the air, carrying everything in the water with it.”  Heith wears gloves, a mask, and eye protection, but has to be careful not to cross-contaminate by touching his face, “… especially when wiping away sweat.” Transferring pathogens to his truck or clothing is also a danger. “We do as much as we can to be safe and just hope for the best.”

For students and young alumni who are working in or for health care fields, the threat of becoming infected with COVID-19 is especially great.

Isiah Hadnott III ’20, of Montgomery, has always wanted to become a doctor. En route to fulfilling that dream, he has been working as an operating room assistant at Baptist South Hospital this semester. Now, he’s also helping with the hospital’s COVID-19 Command Center and screens workers and visitors at the door for temperature readings as a precaution against further spread. Isiah says that the pandemic and his work at the hospital have motivated him even more to fulfill his passion for work in the field of medicine. “I take this as practice to see what I can be up against when caring for many of my future patients at one time,” says Isiah. Although personal protective equipment is available for staff, the possibility of a shortage looms. “I have encountered individuals with COVID-19 in surgery. Everyone has been succeeding in their task [in caring] for our special patients—and all patients, at that. Thankfully everyone has practiced the new norms of social distancing, washing hands (as we always do in the hospital), and wearing facemasks.” Isiah has managed to remain COVID-free, as have his coworkers, because of special decontamination procedures they follow.

For the past decade, Shelby Blair ’22 and her sister, of Indialantic, Florida, have been making and delivering Sunshine Buckets, filled with collected toys and hand-decorated by students, to sick children who are from socio-economically challenged families. Now she has expanded the project to offer Sunshine Bags that include lotion and individual pre-packaged snacks and notes of encouragement. “We worked with medical staff at our local hospitals to get these Sunshine Bags donated to the nurses, doctors, and other medical staff fighting on the front lines. There are so many heroes right now working every day to help those fighting this virus and I just wanted to do my part to give back and let them know we appreciate them.”

Physical therapy clinics are still open, and Alex Hillman ’19 is working in Muscle Shoals as a PT assistant. Clients are screened at the door for signs of virus. “We are following CDC guidelines since we are in close contact with patients.” The practice also offers medical telecounseling to cut down on office visits.

Austin Worley ’13, a third-year resident physician in family medicine, and his wife, Lauren Lugen Worley ’16, a physician assistant in radiology, work at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and see COVID patients who are admitted to the hospital daily. In fact, he diagnosed the first COVID patient in the state of Mississippi. Since there were not protocols in place at the time, Austin was placed in quarantine until he tested negative. Austin and Lauren are the parents of a baby boy, Ander, now eight months old. Austin was not allowed contact with his son or his wife during quarantine. Three coworkers have been diagnosed with the virus, but they believe they were exposed outside of the work environment.

“I honestly don’t know how many patients I’ve seen,” says Lauren. “Up until 2 weeks ago we didn’t get test results for about 7 days. We are now testing in-house so it is much easier to be prepared for the COVID patients. It’s not like New York City here though … every patient isn’t COVID. We aren’t working more or longer shifts. I’ve actually been working less because they want me here when/if it does get bad. They don’t want me exposed before we hit the peak because they will need me here at the hospital if that happens.” Lauren and her coworkers are alternating shifts so that they don’t transfer the virus to each other. “It may get bad here once the shelter-in-place is lifted, and that is what we are preparing for. The quarantine has limited the spread of this virus. Even though numbers are rising, it could be much worse at this time.”

Austin will graduate in May and the Worleys will move to New York City this summer, where he will begin a fellowship in sports medicine in August.

“There are many more students and young alumni who are working on the frontlines, and we wish we could include all of their stories here,” says Su Ofe, vice president for communications. “Clearly, Huntingdon students and alumni make a difference in the world, and the people they serve benefit from professionals who were educated to hold faith, wisdom, and service as both personal and professional ideals.”

In light of the world situation Isiah offers some advice to his student peers. “At this time we are all away from our Huntingdon Family and our beloved campus, I hope we take note of this change in the world. I pray that we can take hold of our family, friends, and loved ones to talk, pray, and cherish everything that we have during this strange time. I hope that we can take a self-inventory to get the energy drainers out of our lives and focus on our passions, goals, and the things that are most important. It feels weird not being able to be in the library early or late at night to prepare for presentations or tests, as I’m sure it does for many others. Every day seems like a new process, but we have to have the courage  and resilience to proceed and prepare for what’s next in life. The Huntingdon Family is strong and I’m glad to be a part of this tremendous bunch.”

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Frontline stories will be continued as part of this series. If you have a frontline story, please contact Su Ofe at news@hawks.huntingdon.edu.

Read more Stories from the Home We Love So Well

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