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On Monday night, Nicole Fowler’s biggest 2020 fears became a reality.
Her 19-year-old daughter tested positive for coronavirus. The daughter, who declined to be interviewed or be identified by name, works at a Lansing area long-term care facility as a certified nursing assistant and medical assistant. Her job duties? Caring for those who are ill and dying with the coronavirus.
“I’m going to be real, I am scared as fuck,” Nicole Fowler told City Pulse on Facebook messenger. “I have lung disease. She’s a mess. It’s a war zone out here.”
Working as a certified nursing assistant runs in the family. Fowler, 45, has been one for 26 years. Her son Domanick Donley, 26, has been one for three years. Fowler’s other two children work in the automotive industry.
Nicole and her daughter, who has been a nursing aide for a year, share a house on Lansing’s southeast side with another of Fowler’s sons and her daughter’s boyfriend. Just hours after the daughter received her news, the boyfriend was also notified he too had tested positive for coronavirus. It was spreading quickly.
The positive results are just the latest turn for a local family that earlier this year had consolidated under one roof for financial reasons. This has been a year of roller coaster realities — job changes, financial stresses, constant fear of contagion and trauma from watching patients suffer and die from the virus that’s running like wildfire through the state, she explained.
For the last several years, Fowler brought home the bread from healthcare work. That often meant driving to various facilities to deliver treatment, including from Lansing to Grand Rapids. It was good money, but when COVID-19 struck the state in March, the rotations began to slow.
Different medical facilities were growing increasingly worried about bringing in patients who had been inside other facilities. Fear of viral spread that had an exceedingly high death rate among older residents and those with underlying medical conditions was the primary order of the day.
Frustrated with the lack of work opportunity, Fowler found a position working full time at a local facility. As she was doing her training, coronavirus was detected inside. At first, she shrugged the virus off. But that was until her friend, a 42-year-old nurse, took a riskier job in Detroit.
Nicole’s friend worked day in and day out in the COVID-19 wards, frantically fighting to save the lives of her patients ailing with the virus. That was in March. By the end of April, the woman — a mother of teenagers and an avid fitness fanatic — had tested positive for COVID-19 and died.
Before she died, the woman shared with Fowler “graphic and horrifying” pictures from inside.
“It scared me. A lot,” Fowler added. “But I was like, if this can happen to her — to someone with no underlying health conditions and who was super healthy — I realized this is going to be bad.”
Donley, Fowler’s son, was more nonchalant. He said he was working at a different facility as the contagion was slowly spreading across the state when his supervisor approached.
“She pulled me aside and said she would want me to be on her COVID-19 unit when it did reach the facility,” he said, noting he was concerned about community spread. “I wouldn’t want to be working on the unit and then coming home. I looked at possibly staying somewhere else.”
In March, as the state gradually went into lockdown, Fowler struggled to find steady work because of the state restrictions. Her children were also hit by the economic depression. Fowler’s financial resources continued to be stretched as she supported four households.
“I made the mistake of thinking, ‘I have a good job. This is OK,’” Fowler said. But it wasn’t.
Fowler struggled to make house payments as well as property tax payments, loan payments and rental support for her kids. She finally had to tell them all that she couldn’t afford four households, and they needed to return home. She later filed for bankruptcy. In the meantime, Fowler has been working extraordinary hours. Shifts as long as 16 hours aren’t uncommon.
Each week also brings a required COVID-19 nasal swab. Until recently, that meant that after most tests, her nose bled profusely. And within two days, her sinuses became infected. That can lead to COVID-like symptoms, which resulted in a trip to Sparrow for yet another COVID-19 test.
That changed this week. Employees now have access to a rapid test, which requires a less invasive nasal swab. All employees are tested twice weekly. Results arrive in 15 minutes.
The recurring sinus infections and the fear of the virus aren’t the only issues that the virus has brought to Fowler’s health. After dealing with night terrors, she finally broke down and got a primary care physician. On Monday, she was diagnosed with probable PTSD related to COVID — which has demonstrated itself with anxiety and depression, two things unfamiliar to Fowler.
Certified nursing assistants do the grunt work, particularly in long-term care facilities, Fowler said. They’re the people who assist patients in self-care. Still, both Fowler and her son said the “healthcare heroes” sentiment that swept through the state didn’t really translate to respect for the work they do.
Fowler attempted to soft pedal the disrespect and lack of appreciation CNAs experience in the general public, but Donley cut her off: “They say, ‘Oh, you’re an asswiper.” She concurred.
“They don’t get what we do. They don’t under it,” Fowler said. “We come in there and help people get dressed, brush their teeth, shower. We change bedpans. It’s hard work.”
She recounted trying to cash in on a discount for healthcare workers at a local discount variety store earlier this year. The business — like others — required workers to show their work badges. Fowler flashed her badge, which clearly identifies her as a fully certified nursing assistant.
“The woman said, ‘She doesn’t deserve it. She’s not a nurse, she’s just a CNA,’” she recalled. Fowler chastised the employee, explaining how much work she actually does, paid for her items — with the discount — and retreated to her car. “I cried a little. I was so angry and frustrated.”