Erika Brooks is from Durham and is a registered nurse who specializes in informatics, meaning she teaches nurses and doctors how to use technological systems to chart and document patient treatment. She is also a mother of a four year old daughter. During our conversation, Erika gratefully lifted up the power of a support system of family, friends and colleagues to navigate this challenging season together.
This conversation took place in late April and has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more about Her Testimony and participate in our survey, visit here. The survey can be completed by anyone who identifies as a Black woman residing in North Carolina who wants to share their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is Erika’s testimony.
How has this experience been like for you so far? What are the first set of words that come to mind?
I would say grateful. I’ve seen a lot of other people’s stories and I guess I’m just grateful at the point where I am. It’s also very demanding in the aspect of just trying to figure out different ways to do things. How to entertain my daughter, how I even walk into work, or how I interact with my family and how I go to church. Just trying to be creative.
Demanding, but I’m also grateful to have those opportunities.
What are some of the different things that you’ve experienced during your day-to-day?
My meetings are still going on, so I’m still working Monday through Friday, sometimes 7-7 sometimes 9-5, so I’m still on meeting calls that are informative, so I can’t just play it and do what I need to do. For daycare, it’s still open so that’s one piece that I’m grateful for. You drop off at the door, they take their temperature, give them hand sanitizer and [they] kinda have to take them in. I let her know that even though I’m dropping you off at the door doesn’t mean I love you any less.
At church. Just making sure my phone is charged up, my computer is charged up, just to go. It is nice not having to rush, to get up, put your clothes on, but it is different because when I’m laying there I’m thinking of so many other things that I could be doing. Sitting, watching church, you know when you’re there you can’t go fold clothes or do dishes, you’re at church. So just trying to remain grounded and actually attend it.
And then with my family we try to connect on Friday and support a local business when we eat. But my mom is a nurse too, so we do check-in throughout the week to say, “How are your patients doing?” Because we don’t live together so technically we’re not supposed to see each other but she lives right down the street. Just trying to make sure we don’t expose each other.
Are you working from home and then going into the hospital?
I go into the hospital about 2-3 times a week. What will happen is I’ll just go in the morning. Everybody has to wear a mask and they ask you a series of questions. But I still get calls, “Hey do you have a minute to run up and help me do this? I can’t figure out how to do this order? Or I can’t figure out how to talk with the nurse about this issue.” So I still have to have face to face interaction with people who take care of COVID patients.
What’s a low point for you so far in this experience?
I think it’s just how to support. I mean I’m a nurse by heart, so I’m a caregiver by heart. I just try to make sure that I give enough. To my daughter, I try to take her outside to fly a kite. But she’s the only child, so it’s like, “I don’t know if the next door neighbor kid feels comfortable with you coming out to play.” I’m trying to play with her.
My mom is a nurse but her husband is now paraplegic, so she’s a caregiver in her own home. She needs a break. But I don’t want him to come over here and I might have something because I’m still in the hospital. So the low point is just… how to do it? How to remain supportive and be that person for everybody because it’s not as easy. You’re more conscious about things.
What’s been a high point for you?
I think just my spiritual groundedness. Finding the silver lining in all this has been. I’m proud of where I am spiritually and emotionally.
I’ll get onto social media but I really won’t feed into it. I’ve set boundaries for myself of how to remain sane and do things. I took my daughter to the strawberry farm and there was an outbreak in Greensboro and all these people were like sending me messages- “You shouldn’t have done that,” “See there’s an outbreak,” – and I’m just like, I did it. I did it, I prayed about it and I’m not going to feed into it. I think it’s just a high point.
I have friends in California that are in COVID units, some friends that decided to go to New York, I have an ER nurse in Winston-Salem. It’s hard talking about my story because so many other people really have it worse off. This project is really great because people like me who aren’t in the trenches, and coming home tired, but you still have a story. At one point I was like, I’m not going to share anything because I don’t want to sound like I’m ok. It’s almost like, “I’m ok,” and you’re shunned upon. Like everybody should be struggling. Yes it’s different, but I’m ok. That’s probably why I’m really interested in this project because there are so many different stories.
That’s the reason we wanted to do this. To document the range of Black women’s stories. We’re all in this together universally, globally, but every situation is different. What have you been learning about your needs during this time?
I think the biggest thing is setting boundaries, because I have to show up and protect myself before I can show up for my daughter, for my family, for my coworkers. Am I an overachiever? Yes. Do I like to go and help people? Yes. But I have to set boundaries. Be smart. You’re still a great worker, you’re still a great employee. Just do what you have to do to protect yourself.
What have you been learning or observing regarding the needs for your community?
For my friends and as Black nurses, we have a group and we message. It’s just the support and being listened to. My friend in California, her health system is terrible. She feels like she’s out the loop, she doesn’t have the equipment that she needs. She’s writing a letter to the union on how to get things. Just being a listening ear to her and empowering her to say “You have a voice. You can advocate for yourself and your employees, your coworkers.”
For my family community is just support. My mom is tired. She told me this weekend – “can you do something with Eddie,” her husband, “for a couple of hours so I can just rest?”
What do you need? It’s really not toilet paper or anything like that, it’s more of a sacred space to just get it together. It’s not different from any other day. Being a single parent, or being somebody who has a husband in a wheelchair, or being somebody in school– this happens everyday. Sometimes you just need a moment. And this just heightens that because it’s limiting.
It’s interesting to see how people are becoming closer in a way.
At work we just discharged our first COVID patient the day before yesterday. So what we do is we play the Rocky song. They called a “Code Rocky” and people lined up and cheered the patient on. I wasn’t there the day before yesterday, but that’s the way the hospital as a community has come together in support. They send out messages like, “we’re here to talk to you for the mental space” and reminding us that it’s ok to want to go to your car for lunch. It’s ok to not want to talk. We started virtual rounding in the hospital and a doctor called me and he said, “I don’t want to go to the COVID hospital.” I walked through how to use the iPhone to talk to the patient. On the nurses side she was like, “I’ve never had to do it because all the doctors come to see the patients.” And I had to tell her and the doctor hey, you don’t have to feel bad, because you’re not the first one who doesn’t want to go into the COVID unit. So the system is doing a great job at making you feel like it’s ok in your decision– everyone has to make their own decision, everyone knows their own struggle.
We’re all adapting to the different demands, stressors, limitations, restrictions with shelter in place. How have you been adapting?
I guess just trying to use my time wisely. The time that I have, after I drop my daughter off. If that’s a work from home day, I’ll stop by the store. When she’s home, it’s just me and her so I’m the entertainer. I’m trying not to do the adulting when she’s home because I feel like she needs my attention.
So your daughter is 4 right? How is she processing all of this? Does she understand what’s going on?
She does. We’ll see a commercial for a movie and say, “We can’t go to the movies right, because of the virus.” So she understands, but it’s just scary because they’re talking about it’s seasonal, you don’t know how long this is going on, so from her perspective this is gonna pass. I don’t know if this is going to be the new norm.
Where have you been finding joy?
Yardwork. Just watching the plants bloom, re-planting flowers, re-doing things in my house, I think that’s where I’ve been finding joy.
What are your hopes for the future?
I’ve learned a lot about myself through this- the willpower I can have to just separate myself from stuff, so I just hope that it stays. I hope that some of the things- like being outside, I hope that stays and I can just put my phone down and go outside.
What are your hopes for your community?
For work, being thankful and expressing that. Like for the ED nurses, if I see one, really thanking you for all that you do, even if I don’t know them. I guess just remaining grateful.
There is so much. But I think the overwhelming support– especially as Black women, in my group as Black nurses–the people I went to school with– the support, you know, just being there, I think that’s what we really have to hold onto.
Form a village.
It doesn’t have to be your family. Form a village that you can really rely on. A non-judgemental village.
I’ve talked to a couple other women and I’m not surprised at this trend of how folks are talking about their community and their tribe or their family or who they’re able to lean on and it goes to the power of the collective — how we take care of each other. You talk a lot about support for each other, support for yourself, support for your family and navigating and how that’s a continued need and a hope.
And also not to put off things — that was another thing.
This virus came overnight and it changed our entire life overnight. Tomorrow is not promised. And even though it might not mean life or death, your life as you know it as today, may look different tomorrow.
A lot of things that I want to do, especially to show people how much I love them, and to embrace people — I’m gonna do it today. I’m gonna do it now. And that’s one thing that I’ve probably learned too. Just how to embrace the moment. Because I love my schedule, I work off my schedule, so I’ll say on Friday I’m gonna do this and this, but I’ve learned that– you know what? I’m gonna take the time to do that today.
The power of now.
It’s powerful. I’ve learned that about myself. I didn’t realize how much I put off. It’s a humbling experience. Even to my hair– I’m gonna get my hair done this day because I’m going here, or I’m gonna get my eyebrows done this day, because I’m going here. My whole schedule… like gymnastics, my daughter’s dance recital got cancelled. Just how everything is so planned out but, but nothing is promised. You know? Nothing! So that’s probably been my biggest learning thing. Now instead of being able to say I’m going here in August, I can say- I hope to go here in August.
So that’s probably been my biggest thing actually. It’s funny now — it was frustrating but now it’s funny, because I’m like– I had it all planned out.
Once again it’s going back to that lesson of letting go- letting go of what society says, of all of the fluff that we try to bring in our lives. It’s really forcing you to get back to basics.
Yes it is.
The stillness– like everything needs to stop and everything has. You gotta face yourself and whatever else without the distractions.
Yeah. And we’re all in the same boat. There’s still hierarchy and justice, but we’re all in the same storm. From higher levels to lower levels, this has just shown us that we’re not immune just because we make this kind of money or have this kind of job or drive this kind of car.
I hope it has really humbled us as a nation.