Jones-Harrison nursing assistant: ‘If I abandon my patients, what conscience do I have?’

Agatha Lamin

The Southwest Journal is documenting the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity. Reporting for this project is by Zac Farber, Nate Gotlieb and Andrew Hazzard.

Agatha Lamin, nursing assistant, Jones-Harrison senior home

Agatha Lamin

I’m from Sierra Leone in West Africa, and 17 years ago I came over here to seek refuge because of the war. I am a U.S. citizen now. I have worked for Jones-Harrison for almost 16 years. I am a nursing assistant, but I am currently in school for nursing at Anoka Ramsey Community College. I live with my 20-year-old daughter, Florence, in Coon Rapids. 

Before the pandemic, I worked in Jones-Harrison’s 18-bed “Hilltop” Alzheimer’s unit. I worked with the patients like they were family. 

Soon after the start of the pandemic, two of our patients got the disease, and they decided to choose Hilltop as the COVID unit. It was all scary at the beginning. They took all our patients out of the unit into other areas. We were all crying. People would talk about COVID, and the next thing you thought was somebody’s going to die. 

So I found myself in the car crying, but I had to come to work. I was fearful for my patients and myself and my coworkers, because we are all like family. We didn’t know what was really going to happen. 

We were given a choice of whether to work on the COVID unit, and I felt kind of brave when I decided to do it. I was thinking, “If I say no, where is my compassion?” They were vulnerable, for one. And also: This unit was my unit. They were my patients before COVID. I was fearful, but as a believer, a born-again Christian, I just committed everything into God’s hands. 

One of my colleagues asked me, “What are you doing on the COVID unit? Is it because of the money?” And I replied to her, “Honestly, $3 [per hour] is equivalent to my life? No, it’s not because of the money, but if I abandon my patients, what conscience do I have?” 

When we started working with the patients, it was stressful seeing people with high fever, suffering, and trying to breathe. I found myself crying a couple of times when someone passed. Seeing the patients dying and the testing was not what it is now — as much as I was crying for the patients, I was fearful for myself. Some of our staff got sick, but, thank God, none of them have died.

Eventually hope came. Because I saw 80-something-year-old people recovering from the COVID unit and walking out of here. That was a joy. Sometimes we would even dance together. It gave me back hope that not everyone would die, and it gave me life. And the staff and administrators, all of them helped out on the COVID unit — so we were not abandoned. 

Right now I have five patients. It’s just one nurse and me. When the ward is full, you have nurses, two aides and you can call for help if you need to. Once you’re in the COVID ward, you get your patients ready as usual — cleaning up, washing, dressing, sitting them up so you can feed them. When it’s time for break, you take off all your garments.  

The way we are dressed is kind of heavy at times. You’re not really getting the air you’re supposed to with those N95 masks, another mask over it, goggles and then a shield. We wear one set of clothes over our own garments and then another one when we are going into the patients’ rooms. So it’s kind of hot, but we need it for protection. 

I don’t think I’ve gotten sick. That’s another mystery that I cannot even explain. At one point I was so sure that I was sick and asymptomatically spreading it. But I have been tested six times and all of them have been negative. 

At first, I could not really tell my daughter what was going on at my job because it’s so related to death. But then one day, she said to me, “Mommy, you’re working too much. You have to be careful the way this thing is going.” And then I lied to her, saying, “Well, in my facility we’re OK. We don’t have something like this going on.” She said, “Don’t lie to me, mommy, it’s on the internet.” [Laughter.] So I had to let her know that it was happening. She’s proud of me; she calls me a “frontliner.”

For me personally, the fear is now gone. I was afraid of touching the patients, but now I am not. Maybe I am adapted to this new environment. 

I’m looking forward to this ending and for us to go back to normal life. Life is not really normal with COVID. We are living in a time of uncertainty.


VOICES FROM THE PANDEMIC

A project documenting the stories of coronavirus in Minneapolis. 

Doctors and nurses

Senior home staff and residents

Community leaders

Business owners and workers

 You can read all of the stories here.