On The Front Line
City Resident Volunteers To Serve COVID Patients In Illinois
Shameka Batchelor works the night shift.
A registered nurse, her days consist of going into work while most of the world is going to sleep. That role has been magnified since the outbreak of COVID-19 as her eight-hour shifts have turned into 12-hour shifts.
By the time she wakes up the next day, she’s able to check in as her daughters are hard at work continuing their education remotely with their father.
It’s become a new normal for the Batchelor family — even though Shameka is working nearly 700 miles and one timezone away.
“I took one of our security cameras and brought it to the hotel with me so that the girls could log-in and see me and see that mom’s doing alright,” she said. “We have Zoom rooms at our house. They have watches that they can make calls to and from us. We’ve made sure that they were able to see that they could get in contact with me at any time.”
Since the beginning of April, Batchelor has been stationed in O’Fallon, Illinois, treating COVID-19 patients at a variety of hospitals — an assignment she sought in becoming a traveling nurse, defined by Nurse Journal as those from a variety of clinical fields who “respond to staffing shortages in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities, closing the gap between the nursing field’s constant supply and demand changes.”
“It’s in my bones,” she said. “Even when I work, I travel to different floors, I’m in the float pool in our local hospital. I know that I’m not really a homebody. I like to go to different places and learn about different things. This was a good opportunity to help out and learn different things, so that’s the information I can take back home with me also.”
“This is what she’s always wanted to do,” Ernest, her husband, said. “It was almost surreal how quick the switch turned on, ‘Like, hey, I can go help these people.’ Then it turned from, ‘I can help these people. … I may not come back because of the decision that I’m making.’ It was kind of tough to go through that change of wanting to do that and I admire that.”
“I called up my travel agency and told them, ‘Hey, I want to help out. Where can you send me?’ They found a location for me to go and I said, ‘Sure,'” Batchelor added. “I just knew for a fact that if I did take care of COVID patients, I didn’t want to take the risk of coming back home and infecting my family,” she said. “I felt like I needed to go out of state. I had to find something that worked for me and the family.”
Foremost on both of their minds, however, was how Shameka’s decision would affect 10-year-old Desiree and 7-year-old Abigail. Ernest, however, had faith in their plan.
“We just told her to go,” he said. “I’ve got things over here, I’m usually a stay-at-home dad, so I know how to handle my way around here anyway, so I know it was just best for her to go and be a little bit more financially stable when she gets back.”
“I wouldn’t be out here if it wasn’t for him making sure I’m OK and making sure the girls are OK,” Shameka said.
“I’ve never, ever been away from them this long before and Ernest has been consoling everyone and constantly keeping everyone’s emotions intact and consoling the girls, letting me know constantly that they’re okay.”
The partnership between husband and wife is one that’s been fostered over the last 14 years after the two met at the Cassadaga Job Corps Academy.
“We dated and all that good stuff and decided to become an item,” Ernest, a New Jersey native, said. “I completed first and decided that I didn’t want to go back to New Jersey and my friend had a place in Jamestown … so I decided to stay here. She knew that I was going to stay here, but she didn’t want to be here without me anyway, so we just ended up staying in Jamestown.”
But Long Island native Shameka’s road to becoming a licensed practical nurse through the academy did not come without its bumps.
“I did my half-a-year at Cassadaga and failed my second semester,” she said, “but, they allowed me to come back and finish at Ashville BOCES.”
After graduating as an LPN, she practiced 10 years at Heritage Park — where she still practices as a per diem nurse — before going to Mercyhurst University where she became a licensed RN in 2017. She also finished an online bachelor’s degree at Western Governors University recently and had worked as a floating nurse at UPMC Chautauqua prior to leaving in April.
“I want people to always be motivated: failure doesn’t mean that you’re completely done,” she said.
Now her hard work has brought her to the front lines of a global pandemic, seeing the novel coronavirus’ impact first hand.
“It’s been very eye-opening,” she said. “One of the hospitals I’ve been to, there were just so many COVID patients coming in that we just started converting different units into COVID units. At one time, we almost felt like our unit was the Hospice unit because, at that point, we were just doing end-of-life care.”
The most demoralizing part, too, has been seeing those who can’t even communicate with their families, she said.
“They can’t even have their family at their bedside with them as they’re taking their last breath,” she said. “It’s just us with these masks on, so they don’t even get to hold someone’s real hand or see someone’s real face or even have their family. It’s just all of our healthcare providers. It’s definitely hard to watch these people come in – you do everything you possibly can, you use every resource that you can and they still don’t make it.”
And while she’s seen the mortality up close, she’s also been lucky enough to care for those who have recovered.
“We have discharged our fair share of people … that’s the best part because we can call their family and say, ‘They’re coming home,'” she said. “That’s the good part of this. That’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Still, she has seen COVID-19’s dangers up close and personally.
“I think the greatest challenge is watching the protests and seeing that people do not think this is as serious as it is,” she said. “It’s hard because I go to work and I have to put all this stuff on and see my COVID patients and, just watching how it affects different patients and to see people out there protesting … I just want them to come to work with me. … Come on the floor just one shift and you will see how serious the situation is.”
“I just want people to know that we’re doing everything we can,” she added. “You hear the stories of these nurses, of these doctors and sometimes it’s just out of sight, either people don’t believe it or haven’t experienced it. I’m human, too. I have a family and I’m not only doing this for myself, but also for my family.”
Meanwhile, in Jamestown, that family is making the most out of the current situation at their self-named ‘Safe Zone.’ Ernest helps continue Desiree and Abigail’s education, thanks to the assistance of their Bush Elementary School teachers, while the Zoom room is commonly used to communicate as much as possible with Shameka.
“The things we had in place, I mean, our plan was literally almost too much between the Zoom meetings and MessengerKids and Facebook and other ways to reach out to her at any given time,” Ernest said with a laugh.
“I was in the Zoom room with Desiree one day and she said, ‘Mom, is it okay if I leave the Zoom room?'” added Shameka. “They’re kind of like comfortable now with this … They know mom’s okay now. Which is okay for me because now I can go to work and say, ‘Okay, good. My girls are okay, my husband is good.’ (Ernest) is handling everything on his part and I’m doing everything on mine.'”
“It’s been a little bit tough just them being home all the time, but as far as learning and things like that go, I used to be a tutor way back when, so we’ve got a really good structure around learning,” Ernest added. “The younger one still wants to go back and it’s been tough to wrap her head around it, but the older one, she has a good understanding. It’s just really cool how limited her mind is and how broad the older ones is. It’s a learning experience for everybody.”
And, though, it’s also hard for their daughters to understand why their mom has been gone for nearly two months, Ernest is confident that the girls will be able to look toward their mom as a lot more than just a role model.
“There’s not really much understanding now, but once they get older and are at an age where they see how the world is and when they realize what their mom did… it’s amazing, it’s going to have a huge impact on them,” he said. “I know her contributions are going to be bravely received especially when the girls are older and they realize what she did at a time when the coronavirus was hitting.”
Shameka, too, is hopeful that the present situation can be used as a teachable moment for her daughters.
“I want them to know that there are people out there that run toward the fires: your firemen, your policemen your people who are in the middle of this that are just working their normal jobs: grocery workers, truckers, all these different people are still showing up to work even though there are severities of the situation,” she said.
“I do hope they’re able to look at that situation and think there were so many people who played a part and made sure that we are all safe so that we can go back home to our families,” she added.
“I want them to be able to see that and know that it’s okay. They can do this.”