As nursing home aide Tyreese Byers’ four children worry about her heading off to work each morning, their pregnant mom stresses over their unborn sibling.
The nurse’s assistant, now three months pregnant, is still working her shift among the elderly and infirm at the Sarah Neuman nursing home in Marmaroneck, N.Y. Her duties are myriad: Cooking, cleaning, laundry and providing the residents with a little TLC.
But walking through the front door for another eight-hour shift is a tough mountain to climb every morning for the mother-to-be. The elderly are among the highest risks of infection and death, with the World Health Organization reporting last month a mortality rate of nearly 15% for those 80 and up.
“It’s in your mind when you first get there,” said Bronx native Byers, adding that only one of the 13 residents in her unit is under age 80. “It’s hard. Sometimes at work I go into a little corner and cry. Things gotta get better.
“But once you start working, interacting with the residents, it can slip your mind for a brief minute what’s going on in the world. You’re not by yourself. It’s you and another person.”
Byers sits in her car and prays every morning before heading inside, making a divine appeal for the nurses working alongside her and around the world.
Her children worry about Byers’ safety, particularly given her pregnancy. Her son, the oldest of the four, comes by to check on her. But one of her daughters is far more forceful in her assessment of the dire situation.
“She says, ‘Mom, you need to be home. You know you’re pregnant. I don’t want anything to happen to you,’” recounts Byers, who’s two months short of her 12th anniversary at the Neuman home. “I tell her I’m taking the proper precautions. And if I stay home, who’s going to support me and pay my bills?”
Some of her patients are battling dementia, with no idea of the global disaster outside the building walls. One is a former beautician; Byers and the staff fix her up with empty plastic bottles, as if she’s still working and waiting for her next makeover candidate to arrive.
Those residents aware of the pandemic sit around a communal dinner table as Byers and her colleagues serve up a dinner prepared by the staff: Soup, an entree and dessert. The workers often grab a seat at the long table and join the conversation.
“They all sit and express their concerns,” said Byers, a member of SEIU1199 — the nation’s largest health care workers union. “We make them feel safe, tell them that right now they’re very safe. One resident said to me, ‘Please don’t leave. If you leave, I won’t know what to do.’ I tell her I’m hanging in there, doing the best that I can.”
She pauses for a second before speaking again, then delivers a worldwide wish for normalcy.
“One day, I keep hoping, we’re going to wake up and it’s gone,” said Byers.