When nurse Maya Ierome relocated from American Samoa to the U.S. mainland in the summer of 2017, she never imagined that she would soon be faced with the grim reality of being a frontline health worker during a worldwide pandemic. She worked for the Warren Barr Gold Coast Long-term Care Facility in Chicago, Illinois when the COVID-19 virus reached the U.S. and began its wrath in March of 2020. It turned her once hopeful and cheerful working environment into a living nightmare.
Maya worked the night shift, and at the time it was one nurse assigned to each floor to care for the patients. When patients in the facility began testing positive for COVID, they were separated and relocated. Many of them also had severe underlying health problems; a separate floor was cleared to care for those in critical care. As the virus began to spread like wildfire, Maya said it got to such a horrifying point where they were losing people beyond their control, despite their best efforts. According to a report by the Department of Health that came out in 2021, most infections of COVID-19 in Illinois occurred at long term health-care facilities. “There were so many restrictions at that time,” said Maya, “the only time families were allowed near, was when the patient was nearing death and they were given just a moment to say their goodbyes.”
Maya said the hardest parts of her job are having to watch her patients die and giving the news to their families. However bad it got, she maintained such a high level of professionalism, even though deep down inside her heart broke over and over again for the patients she lost and their families. “It was hard having to witness patients die without their loved ones by their bedside” she said, “We were the last ones they saw and heard from as they succumbed to the virus. We continuously faced the difficult situation of having to call family members and notify them of their loved one’s time of death. I believe that not having that familial support and love nearby also caused a lot of the deaths because that absence and missing support can put so much strain on the patients, physically, mentally, and spiritually.”
The emotional stress of dealing with COVID-19 began to take a toll on Maya and her coworkers. “It really impacted in a way that we never saw coming” she said, “I would go to bed thinking of those that had died under our care and about their families. Now with the vaccines, it is hard to imagine that just two years ago there was nothing we could do to save them. It is something I never want to ever experience again.” While the deaths due to COVID-19 were overwhelming for Maya and her co-workers, the experience was not entirely discouraging as there were also patients who survived the virus. “The most rewarding experience for a nurse is seeing a patient make a full recovery” she said, “Even though there were many deaths, there was also hope in the midst of the pandemic and that brought a lot of joy to our hearts. As Samoans, we cling to hope and faith to weather us through these storms. And I held on tight, as well as prayed and believed that this too, shall pass.”
Maya never saw herself as a nurse when she began her nursing career over twenty years ago in American Samoa. “I wanted to be a supermodel” she said with a chuckle, “As I went through the motions with high school and graduated in 1994, I realized my parents were also getting older and I wanted to provide the best care for them. That is what motivated me to study nursing.” Maya is the youngest of nine siblings, all of whom married and moved on and as a custom with Samoan upbringing, the unwed child usually becomes the caretaker for the parents. Maya started working in the emergency room of the L.B J. Medical Center in American Samoa before moving to the dialysis clinic, where she worked for most of her career at the local hospital. “I enjoyed my time working in the dialysis unit” Maya said, “A lot of the patients were nearing the end of their lives and I established strong relationships with them; when a patient passed, it was like losing a friend you had known for years.”
The influx of local Samoans relocating to the U.S. mainland to seek better medical care has more than quadrupled over the years. I asked Maya what the healthcare system in American Samoa lacks when compared to the U.S. mainland. “We are pretty up to date in terms of education, all of the proper procedures and care are being taught, even with the doctors. The only real failure our hospital system has is with technology and equipment. We do not have a lot of equipment, updated machines, or current technology. So, there are times when all we can do is improvise.”
When Maya’s mother became gravely ill in 2012, Maya took a leave of absence for the first time from work to care for her, but only four months later, her mom was gone. Maya’s father passed away three years after in 2015. “I don’t have any resentments or bitter regrets with the passing of my parents” she reflected, “I miss them terribly, but the relationship and bond we had was strong, and is enough to sustain me through any trial or tribulation I may face for the rest of my life. Our culture teaches us that our blessings in life come from “tausi mātua”, caring for our parents and elders, and I am a living believer in that sentiment.”
After moving to Chicago and finding work as a nurse with the Warren Barr Long-term Care Facility, Maya said that it was there where she learned the true value of our Samoan way of life. “Back home there is a lot of mutual respect that comes with the work we do” she said, “You give all your energy and time, and you feel the love being returned, and it motivates you even more. And I believe our cultural and family values have a lot to do with that as well. Here in the states, you have to maintain a level of integrity between your work and the patient as not to allow one to overstep the other in terms of the relationship. It’s frustrating sometimes, but I’ve learned to ride along.” Following the harrowing ordeal that was the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020, Maya opted for a change of scenery for therapeutic and personal reasons.
In January 2021, she moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to begin a new life with her boyfriend whom she met back in 2009. They live a quiet country life, and she took a job with a clinic where she performs mostly office duties for two orthopedic doctors. While interviewing Maya on the phone, her boyfriend chimed in with a laugh and said “No more traveling back and forth for me. Now if I could only get her to come out of the house more often. All she wants to do on her days off is stay indoors.” I asked Maya if she was happy, “I am” she responded, “I want to focus on my love life right now. I do miss my friends in Samoa, I miss the fellowship with my fa’afafine sisters. Absolutely no feeling like it. When I was young, I always wanted to live in a big city like those girls on TV, but now that I’m here and have done all of those things, honestly, there is no place like home and that is the wholehearted truth.”