Women on coronavirus front lines mark unusual Mother’s Day

by | May 10, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

Every Monday, Tuesday and Friday, she gets up early to open the testing center. She hears her 16-year-old daughter say, “Mom, I don’t want you to go.”

But Tawana Nettles-Robinson goes anyhow. She goes to the SAY Detroit Family Health Clinic in Highland Park and the big white tent that is now in its parking lot and she layers up in a protective gown, gloves, face mask and eye shield, as the cars begin to line up on Glendale, one masked driver after another.

She talks through lowered windows. She administers nasal swab tests. She tries to be encouraging to worried passengers, who have been coughing, or fevered, or have hypertension and diabetes.

And all the while, Tawana thinks about Laneeka Barksdale, the sister-in-law who was “the sister I never had,” who she’d known since they were 12 years old, and who had such a big smile and such a big personality and did these amazing Easter Egg hunts for her two kids, whom she adored more than anything.

Laneeka died, in March, from COVID-19 complications, without ever being tested while she was alive.

“I wonder constantly if we could have done something for her,” Tawana says.

So now she does it for others, from morning to evening, even though her daughter worries every day that the same fate that took her aunt might hit her mom.

“I worry about it, too,” Tawana admits.

Today is a different kind of Mother’s Day. Joy has been usurped by protection. Brunches replaced by Zoom calls. The coronavirus has become an invisible wall dropping everywhere in America, blocking us from our loved ones and our celebrations.

Instead, this Mother’s Day, we worry. Our older mothers, we urge to stay inside. Our sick mothers, we wonder if we’ll get to see again in person. Our younger mothers, we count on to protect their families from exposure.

And then there is another group, the mothers who spend their days on the front lines, as doctors, nurses, security personnel, first responders, whose spouses and children worry about them in an even deeper way than the rest of us.

Tawana is in those ranks.

The new normal

The SAY Detroit COVID-19 Testing Site, which Tawana coordinates, is the first independent testing site in Detroit that allows both drive-thrus and walk-ups. No insurance, no appointment, and no prescriptions are required. It came together as a result of several groups — SAY Detroit, Trinity Health, the Detroit Rescue Mission, the D2N Foundation, and Michigan Healthcare Professionals.

It is funded mostly by proceeds from “Human Touch,” the online work of fiction I am writing and giving away for free, chapter at a time, each Friday at humantouchstory.com. Donations through that website — which are optional — have come from as far away as Brazil and the Philippines. They are paying the bills for this unique Detroit testing site.

But it is spearheaded by a small staff of dedicated workers, led by Nettles-Robinson, who normally serves as operations manager of the SAY Detroit clinic. She has also been with Trinity Health for the last eight years, where her job title is Executive Director Medical Services, Detroit Market. When she took that position, she likely never envisioned being dressed like something from the “Contagion” movie and collecting nasal swabs from approaching strangers in a parking lot.

But this is the new normal. For her, and everybody.

“Ninety-five percent of the people we see have either symptoms or underlying health issues,” she says. “And as the tests are coming back, we’re seeing that close to 30 percent of them are testing positive for COVID-19. That’s huge. Higher than I ever expected.”

The poor, largely African-American communities of Detroit have been hardest hit by this pandemic. Their numbers are staggering, and those numbers don’t even account for certain people who never got tested or may have died at home.

“I’ve been to four viewings for loved ones since this started,” Tawana says. “My sister-in-law, a co-worker, a cousin’s wife and a friend.”

When I ask if she is scared about catching the virus that killed them, given her exposure to over 100 potentially infected visitors each day, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Scared would be an understatement,” she says.

Let’s give thanks

And yet she goes. She puts herself on the line. “I’m obligated to help the community to do my job,” says the Detroit native, who earned her masters degree in health administration from Central Michigan. “I need to be as supportive to the staff as I can, and to lead by example.

“I can’t imagine not doing it.”

This takes courage. Just as being an admitting nurse in an emergency room takes courage, or being a police officer, or working in a fire department, or doing public safety work, or standing behind a register at a supermarket or drugstore.

Much of the nation is being told to shelter-at home. Many of us can. Some women cannot.

A different kind of Mother’s Day. Normally, Tawana says, her family celebrates with a big barbecue, maybe 25-30 people, including her mother and grandmother and sister-in-law. Not this year. Laneeka is gone. Tawana’s grandmother, who is 94 and lives on the west side, can’t be visited, for fear of infecting her with the virus.

“We’ll just have a small get-together, I guess,” she says. And come Monday, she’ll be back at work at the testing site, covered from head to toe, trying to comfort Detroiters who worry they have this virus that has ripped the roots out of our daily existence, and made us wonder if anything will ever be the same.

So today, let’s give a shout to the mothers on the front lines, the ones whose kids don’t want them to go, the ones who are scared but do the work anyhow, because being scared is only one part of fighting a pandemic. Being brave is another.

Many of us will talk about our mothers today. And we’ll boast about how strong they are.

That, as Tawana says, would be an understatement.

Mitch Albom is offering a new work of fiction “Human Touch” for free on the internet to help first responders fighting COVID-19. You can read a new chapter each week or listen to the audio version at humantouchstory.com. Albom is encouraging donations from those who can to the “Detroit Beats Covid 19!” project at saydetroit.org. Contact him at malbom@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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