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Mercy Home Lifeline Sustains Hospital Worker During Pandemic

Mercy Home Lifeline Sustains Hospital Worker During Pandemic

Frontline AfterCare member remains humble and grateful for donors’ essential support

Shena – the assistant team leader for the laundry department at St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago, Indiana – was on her break. Flooded with emotion, as the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis wreaked havoc on her personal and professional life, the 31-year-old mother of four and former Mercy Home resident found a secluded corner in the hospital and burst into tears. 
 
It was almost too much to bear: the suffering and death she’d witnessed while working on the frontlines with COVID patients, her husband being diagnosed with the virus, and the constant fear and uncertainty of clocking into a work environment where personal protective equipment supplies were dwindling as a deadly virus tightened its grip.
 
In these desperate moments, Shena often reached out to Mercy Home for guidance and clarity. She dialed the phone number of the one person whom she knew could always guide her back to solid ground – Monti Clayton, Manager of Coordinated Supports in our AfterCare program, which offers ongoing support, encouragement, and resources to former Mercy Home residents.
 
“Monti is like a mother to me,” Shena said. “I would call her and just kind of break down to her. I went to her just to keep me going a little bit. She is my rock.”
 
In front of patients and coworkers, Shena was an unflappable, positive presence in the midst of overwhelming devastation. Only out of sight, behind closed doors, would she finally unleash her emotions.
 
“I’m not a crier. I’m not the type to let the whole world see when I’m sad or down – especially patients,” she said. “Because of the masks I wear, a lot of patients can only see my eyes. It’s my job to push through, remain humble, and smile with my eyes so I can encourage and help somebody else through whatever they are going through.”
 
Shena needed all the courage she could muster. Besides supplying the entire hospital with fresh linens, gowns, towels, and thermal blankets, because of the COVID crisis, her workload essentially doubled. And because many of her coworkers were either furloughed or else too scared to come to work, Shena’s qualifications got her assigned to new roles beyond her normal duties.

Because of the masks I wear, a lot of patients can only see my eyes. It’s my job to push through, remain humble, and smile with my eyes so I can encourage and help somebody else through whatever they are going through.

“I’m not a housekeeper, but because I’m able to do housekeeping and we were short-staffed, I would go into the rooms with these COVID patients to change linens and clean,” she said. “I was scared because I really didn’t know what was going on. At that time, information was bouncing back and forth every hour, every day. Your mind’s racing. It’s like, okay, what’s next?”
 
Incidents unfolded in grim succession – each one more painful than what came before. For example, Shena became close with an elderly man with chronic health problems who walked around with an oxygen tank. She routinely saw him around the hospital with his wife, who never left his side. Shena often broke bread with the couple in the cafeteria on her lunch breaks.
 
One day, Shena noticed the man came into the emergency room with further respiratory problems. She spoke to him, as he expressed a positive outlook strengthened by his faith in God. He was later released. The next day, he passed out in a store and died. Shena was working when paramedics brought him back to the hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19.
 
“I was hurt and absolutely devastated,” Shena said. 
 
Shena’s supervisor in housekeeping played a pivotal role in her professional life, as a model coworker who never wasted an opportunity to inspire those around her.
 
“She was just so positive,” Shena said. “Many people in a leadership position – maybe not on purpose – fail to give you words of encouragement, or they fail to acknowledge you, but not her. She always said hello and told us to keep up the good work.”
 
Not long after Shena transferred to housekeeping, her supervisor took a leave of absence to seek treatment for cancer. After making progress, her supervisor returned to work at the hospital. But the stress and workload proved to be too much, so she put in her paperwork and filed for retirement. Sadly, that day never came. Before she could retire, Shena’s supervisor started experiencing breathing problems. She was diagnosed with COVID-19, put on a ventilator, and died shortly thereafter.
 
“Her last words to me were ‘Keep your head up. No matter what you’re doing, somebody’s always looking to see what a good job you’re doing,’ and that was the last day I saw her,” Shena said.
 
Rather than drowning in such doom, Shena relied on her phone calls with Monti to keep her thoughts and energy above water.
 
“Monti is an angel in disguise. She’s a true original and she’s been there for me since the beginning. She’s so humble and wise,” she said. “When you talk to her, the first time you hear Monti’s voice, you’re hooked.”
 
Monti and Shena go way back. The first time she heard Monti’s voice was when Shena arrived at Mercy Home as a scared 14-year-old looking to escape an abusive childhood. Monti was then a program manager at our girls home and was one of the first people with whom Shena confided and shared her story.
 
After her biological mother abandoned her at a friend’s house when she was only six months old, Shena bounced around numerous foster homes for years before being adopted when she was six years old. 
 
Shena thought that her dreams had come true – that her adoption marked the start of a happy new era of unconditional love, a caring family, and a stable home. Instead, it turned into a nightmare.
 
“My adoptive mother wore a lot of hats,” Shena said. “As a police officer, she worked with different organizations for kids, but behind closed doors, she was mentally, verbally, and physically abusive to me. When I left, she started doing the same thing to my brother.”
 
To cope with the pain, frustration, and anger, Shena turned to self-harm. “I was a cutter,” she said.
 
Shena says her adoptive mother seemed to find a twisted sense of joy in denying her children things they loved. For example, Shena modeled when she was younger. But when she got accepted into a high-profile modeling agency, her mother squashed those dreams out of spite and took her to a barbershop.
 
“Anything and everything that she realized we were good at, she took away,” Shena said. “I had beautiful long hair at that time – when I was 10. She took me to five barbershops to see which one would cut my hair. Many refused, but one of them agreed and chopped it all off.”
 
During her teen years, Shena became suicidal, but her mother ignored the warning signs. Shena didn’t know who to turn to, so she internalized all her feelings until they became unmanageable, which led to a string of hospitalizations. 
 
Despite Shena’s fragile grip on her emotions, her mother continued the abuse. The last straw, Shena says, was when her mother and a friend locked her in a bathroom and berated her for two hours straight.
 
“At this point, I didn’t see a way out,” Shena said. “I told her ‘This is not normal. I’m just going to kill myself.’ She didn’t believe me, so I took all these pills and ended up in a coma. They had to pump my stomach. I came out of the coma about a week later.” 
 
Shena told hospital staff that if she returned home, she’d try to kill herself again. So, she stayed at the hospital for almost nine months seeking treatment, until a space opened up for her at Mercy Home.
 
“The staff at Michael Reese Hospital saved my life. They’re the ones who recommended Mercy Home to me,” Shena said.

For a year, she lived at our Home and made progress. But Shena still craved a relationship with her mother, despite all the pain and suffering she caused. Eventually, Shena felt she was in a good enough space to give her mother a second chance.

The staff at Michael Reese Hospital saved my life. They’re the ones who recommended Mercy Home to me.

“I knew her as my mother, no matter what she did to me. And when you are a kid, you want a mother’s touch,” she said. “But not even a week after I returned, she attacked me and dragged me by my hair down the stairs. I was very injured. I can’t remember how I got back to Mercy Home, but the day I went back to the girls’ home, I never looked back.”
 
Leaving that painful chapter behind, Shena fully committed and allowed Mercy Home’s network of care to help her heal. Inside our doors, she found the safety, stability, and unconditional love that she’d always longed for. Therapists helped her work though complex emotional trauma. Tutors helped her succeed in school. But most importantly, Shena developed lasting relationships with positive role models who are still in her life today.  
 
“Mercy Home not only teaches us love and respect, but they teach us that you’re not alone, no matter what,” she said. “I’m still in contact with many of the girls I lived with. We call ourselves sisters, and we check on each other. I feel a sense of unity with them.”
 
But the strongest bond she forged was with Monti. “I was her shadow,” Shena said. “I was in her office so much that she gave me little tasks to do, like an assistant.”
 
Even when she left Mercy Home to start her life and start a family, Shena felt reassured that Monti was only a phone call or email away. When she had kids of her own, Shena felt lost because she had no grandmother on her side of the family. She worried to herself: Who would be there for Grandmother’s Day, special events, or graduations? So she reached out to Monti.
 
“Monti told me that if I could let her know ahead of time, she would try to be there at these special occasions, and she did,” Shena said. “Monti has shown up for birthday parties. She has shown up for graduations. She has not missed a beat. She was even there at my wedding.”
 
Shena says that people like Monti – and other coworkers at Mercy Home – go above and beyond what’s required. Working at Mercy Home is more than just a job, it’s a calling that is answered — day in, day out, in good times and bad – by a mission to help children and families in need. 
 
Which is why Shena knew she could depend on the entire Mercy Home family when the global pandemic struck. At first, break-time chats with Monti were enough inspiration for Shena to make it through her grueling shifts at the hospital. But when her husband started experience breathing problems, headaches, and chest pains, phones calls alone were not enough to cure what was coming down the pike.
 
A few days later, while Shena was at work, her husband came into the hospital and was diagnosed with COVID-19. Without serious symptoms, he was released and told to quarantine for 14 days.
 
“My kids and I were not able to see him,” Shena said. “For the first week, he quarantined elsewhere – away from our home. Because we were in the process of moving, he stayed in the new house, and then we ventured his way when he got better.”
 
Thankfully, Shena and her children did not contract the virus, but they were not spared the economic fallout that rippled through their lives. With her husband unable to work and daycare shut down, Shena and her family scrambled to find a foothold – especially as Shena experienced furloughs at the hospital. Luckily, extended family pitched in to help out with daycare, but as income loss became a reality, so too did food scarcity. The cupboards and refrigerator grew more and more bare.
 
But thanks to our generous donors, Mercy Home’s mobile task force was able to deliver assistance to Shena and her family. 
 
“One day, I came home and there was a package outside my door with food items,” Shena said. “I definitely did not expect that. I called Mercy Home right away and said ‘Oh my God, thank you so much! You don’t know how much this means to me!’”

Mercy Home continued to support Shena and her family with gift cards to various grocery stores and retailers to help them get by. Shena was amazed at how Mercy Home still managed to help others in need, even as a deadly pandemic roared across the world.
 
“I was raised not to question our blessings, but I was astounded how donors still managed to reach out to Mercy Home and give blessings to not just me, but so many others,” she said. “That meant a lot to me because many people during this time are only thinking about themselves.”
 
In fact, Shena takes her gratitude a step further, drawing parallels between frontline workers and donors.
 
“You don’t have to work in a hospital to be considered essential,” she said. “I don’t know the job titles of Mercy Home donors, but to me, they are essential. They have such a big impact on so many of us.”
 
Even as a child, Shena had a deep sense of compassion and charity, and what it means to be humble. Living at Mercy Home just reinforced those ideals and gave her a template on how and where to give back, which she continues to put into practice.
 
“Last year, around Thanksgiving, every time my husband and I got our paychecks, we would go to dollar stores to find sales on toothbrushes, coats, and socks,” she said. “We wrapped the items up in a box with what little money we could spare and we donated that stuff to people in need around Christmas.”
 
For now, Shena is staying laser-focused on the task at hand – keeping those around her happy, healthy, and safe, especially her family and the patients entrusted to her care.
 
“In the healthcare system, our job is to not overlook anything, because if you do, that’s when problems arise,” she said. “I watch people. That’s what I do. I watch, and then I take action.”
 
As she continues to work and take care of her family, Shena remains philosophical about each day, knowing that suffering and setbacks are just a natural part of life. It’s how we adapt and respond to those hardships that define who we are, not only as individuals, but as a society as well.
 
“I was taught that in life you might have to go 10 steps back to get to where you’re going, but above all, go forth and be humble,” she said. “You never know what other people are going through. You have to be mindful of how you interact with others. You may be able to save a person’s life without even knowing it. Even though I struggle with depression, Mercy Home taught me to keep fighting. It’s okay to fall, but you have to get back up.”

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