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Jones-Harrison nursing assistant: ‘You see the light at the end of the tunnel’

March 4, 2021

This community reporting project documents 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.

Agatha Lamin, nursing assistant, Jones-Harrison senior home

I moved the last patient from the COVID unit in January. It was a huge relief. We closed the door and cleaned the whole place, and since then we have not gotten any other cases.

The vaccine was also a deep relief. The first time, my arm was sore and heavy. The second vaccination made me feel tired, and I was dragging all day but I still had to work. Luckily, it was just for a day, and everyone bounced back. We pray that everything will come to an end eventually so we can all take off our masks.

The governor came [to Jones-Harrison] in February, and they asked me if I could come to talk. I was a little panicked. People were standing in front of me with all these cameras; I’d never done that before, it was my very first time! I got to talk with him directly, and he said he was very grateful for our hard work and he wanted to know how we felt about the vaccine. I told him thank you, but I was nervous. I thought, “Who am I to stand close to the governor?” It was a big deal for me, and I was excited. My daughter wrote on Facebook that she was so impressed. She wrote, “Growing up I always knew my mother was a hero, but now the whole world has seen it.”

I think about the people who died, the people I had been with. The very first patient was so adorable. She was always giving hugs and had a son who would come to visit. I was constantly in her room before she was diagnosed. Then we lost her. I really saw the struggle with my eyes. The changing of the color, the high fever, the gasping for breath. I saw it and was fearful. You can only cry. But I was blessed that I was able to help.

America has been so good to me. I came in with nothing at all when I was 20 years old. The first thing I got was a card — for food stamps — and I went into the store and could get whatever I wanted.

Before I came here, my life in Sierra Leone was horrible. The civil war started when I was in my early teens. So many people were killed. You were jumping over dead bodies and you never knew if you would be the next person. There was no food at all.

My father, Alfred J. Lamin, was a medical man in the southern region; when he retired from the military, he opened his own pharmacy in our village Koribondo. He was taking care of people and I could help in his clinic [as a receptionist].

He cared for people during the war because you have to. It’s not like doing something for the money; you just have to do it. My older sister still lives in Freetown, and when I was telling her about my experience [during the pandemic], she said, “What is embedded is in you.”

There are a number of people from Sierra Leone who live in the Twin Cities, in Brooklyn Park mostly. Before the pandemic we could gather for things like our independence celebration and other parties. It’s hard not to have that same community now.

The fireworks on the Fourth of July are now my biggest phobia and trauma. When they explode, the first thing that goes off in my mind is attack, because that is what the sound would be when the bad guys were coming into town. I’ve seen blood and people on the ground — and that will stay with me forever — but the sound of the fireworks is what moves me and brings the memory back.

During the war you could get killed even if you did nothing wrong, so you were afraid. The hardest part of the pandemic was my fear. The war and the pandemic were two separate things, but the relation is that you are fearful for your life at the end of the day. When I overcame my fear, it was all OK.

When a patient who was 98 survived the pandemic last summer, she gave me hope. She came in with high fever — she could not even talk — but after two, three weeks, she came back. She was eating rice and talking and they said she was negative. That’s the first time I got hope that not everyone would die. The last woman I took out of the unit — now I can sit next to her. It’s wonderful.

Being vaccinated makes everything less stressful. We were all looking forward to it, believing that we can now get back to life. We still wear the mask and shield, but we don’t have to wear the gown anymore. You see the light at the end of the tunnel. At home, I am still careful, but I can eat together with my daughter and sit on the same couch.

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