Nurse and Mom of 5 Travels to Coronavirus Hotspots to Help Patients with COVID-19 Kidney Damage

PEOPLE's Voices from the Coronavirus Crisis shares firsthand accounts from people facing unique challenges during the pandemic

Covid Nurse Tonya Waddell
Photo: Courtesy Tonya Waddell

Tonya Waddell has worked as a dialysis nurse at Fresenius Kidney Care in Martinsville, Virginia, for the last 9 years. The 45-year old lives with her five children and her mother, who is battling lung cancer. Waddell is traveling around the country volunteering to help in COVID-19 hot spots. She is currently stationed at a hospital near Houston, Texas. This is her story, as told to PEOPLE.

Toward the end of March, the emails and text messages started coming in: hospitals needed help during the coronavirus pandemic, my manager said, and she asked if any of the nurses would be willing to travel and work in the hotspots.

I didn’t think twice about taking the opportunity. It was hard to sit back and watch all of the sick people on the news. My heart goes out to them. I knew many healthcare workers were struggling with the workload, and patients weren’t getting the treatment they needed because there weren’t enough nurses around to meet the demand.

So, on April 11, the day after my 45th birthday, I flew to Newark, New Jersey. It was overwhelming — my first day there, I worked fourteen hours.

As a dialysis nurse, many of the patients I treat are dealing with an acute kidney injury due to the coronavirus. Some patients are experiencing sudden kidney damage or kidney failure caused by the virus, which hinders the passage of oxygen and can cause blood clots, thus hurting the organs. Other patients had chronic kidney disease, and contracting the virus exacerbated their condition.

You access the patient with either a needle or catheter, and their blood goes through a machine, it dialyzes, and then it is returned back to the patient. The machine acts as an artificial kidney. You cycle their blood anywhere from 2-5 hours to clean it and remove any fluids.

Covid Nurse Tonya Waddell
Courtesy Tonya Waddell

This is what a typical day looks like for me: I wake up around 7 a.m., eat some hotel breakfast and get to work by 9 a.m. I usually treat several patients a day, check in on their dialysis treatment, maybe take a short lunch break. Some nights I don’t leave until 11 p.m.

I spent two weeks in Newark, three weeks in Boston and two weeks in Chicago. I’ve treated more than 30 patients so far.

Obtaining Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been difficult. I’ve always had what I needed, but in some places, I’ve had to wear gowns and masks two, three times before I could get new equipment. Nobody expected the demand.

My employer has been extremely supportive. They’ve provided meal assistance, transportation, and they constantly check in to make sure I’m okay and have what I need.

One patient I had in New Jersey — a male in his mid 50s — stuck with me. Those infected with the virus couldn’t have any visitors, so the nurses spent a lot of time with them. We talked for hours. He was so lonely, and just wanted to see his family. We even prayed together, and I held his hand. But many of my patients were on the ventilators and couldn’t speak.

"Fear can take over if you let your mind run rampant ... "

Fear can take over if you let your mind run rampant, thinking, ‘Oh God, what if I get this?’ and being upset for your patients. Your mind is running, and you usually don’t have anyone to talk to. There was no way to prepare for this.

Covid Nurse Tonya Waddell
Courtesy Tonya Waddell

The other nurses and I would find quiet spots in the hotel to sit six feet apart and enjoy meals together and talk about our days. When I was in New Jersey, we nicknamed each other after the states we were from. So if you saw one from Mississippi, you’d say, 'Oh hey there, Miss Mississippi!’ I was Miss Virginia. It was funny.

When I get back to the hotel after a long shift, I usually chat on Facetime with my mom, Carolyn, and my 19-year-old son, Billy, who are staying together in Virginia. I also got hooked on The Weather Channel — there’s this show called Heavy Rescue with truckers on there that’s strangely relaxing. My other kids: Alicia, 22, Jacob, 20, Caleb, 18 and Will, 13, have their own places or are staying with different relatives in Virginia.

It has definitely been rough, missing my family. All of my children are adopted as I couldn’t have children of my own, and these kids complete me. My dad jokes that I got carried away with five, but God has blessed me for sure.

Billy, my middle child, has a heart of gold. He keeps his grandmother and I smiling through her sickness [she is battling lung cancer] and my deployments. He sent me this text recently: 'I’m very proud of you. You are a strong and outgoing person and a great mother the best I could ever ask for honestly. Yes, I miss you and there are times that I wished you could be here and times I wished I could hug you and tell you you’re doing great. I believe God called you to do great things like that for people.'

"Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve learned something new ... I know I'm making a difference."

I just started at a hospital near Houston, Texas. I’m ready to dive into my work and excited to learn even more about dialysis. Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve learned something new, including how to better set up my equipment.

I have been able to spend a couple days at home between working at these different hospitals. I was never worried about infecting my family because my company, Fresenius Kidney Care, has strict infection control procedures that we follow. When I returned to Virginia after working in New Jersey, my mother stayed with my brother and I quarantined at home as much as I could. When I came back from Boston, I immediately went to a hotel and got tested for coronavirus. I only went back home once the results came back negative.

It’s extremely important that everyone practices social distancing, washes their hands, uses hand sanitizer and listens to the public health officials. If you don’t care about yourself, at least care about protecting others, especially those who are vulnerable to the virus. It’s real and it’s scary.

At the end of the day, I know I’m making a difference, whether the patient knew I was there or not, providing this treatment and giving them a chance at a healthier, longer life.

  • As told to Morgan Smith


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